The landscape seen on the nightly news grows more and more bizarre; tonight I watched cows trotting along the coastline of Fukushima, and cows walking down the main streets of the deserted city. All residents within a twenty mile radius of the nuclear reactor have now been completely evacuated, and 10,000 cows have been left behind to fend for themselves. Until the official evacuation deadline (last week), many farmers had been commuting from shelters back to their farms to feed and care for their animals. Most farmers were attempting to give the cows just enough feed to keep them alive but not enough to induce milk production, and the animals were skin and bones–the nightly news showed them lying weakly in their stalls, unable to stand for long periods of time. The newborns who required hand-feeding died early on. A farmer from Nahara, 14 Kilometers south of the plant, had been commuting daily from a shelter to feed his 130 holsteins. In an interview last week, he talked to the Tokyo Times about his deep affection for the cows: “Before I leave for the day, I tell myself that this may be the last time I see them alive, and I take my cap off and bow.” I have seen no follow-up to this story, but as his farm is within the evacuation zone, it is a given that his cows are now on their own, and final goodbyes have been said. It is painful for farmers to feel they are abandoning the animals that have sustained them and have depended on them for care and protection. Yet as of this week, even the farmers who had been continuing to return to feed their herds on a daily basis have been forced to give up. Some farmers simply abandoned their barns, leaving cows, pigs, and chickens locked inside to die of starvation. Others chose to free their animals, and other animals have escaped on their own, thanks to power failures that made electric fences ineffective. Thus the vision of cows jogging along the seaside on tonight’s news broadcast.
Farmers just outside of the evacuation zone are officially “on alert”, and may have to evacuate swiftly if the radiation level rises in their neighborhood. They are, of course, attempting to be proactive, and find a solution before one is forced on them. One farmer interviewed was desperately attempting to move his entire herd to a safer neighborhood, calling on friends and family to assist him in his search for…..a huge empty barn. Sorry, those are not easily found these days. In the meanwhile, the government has stepped in with a proposal to cull the herds. Veterinarians dressed in the standard white protective gear have been sent out to farms in the danger zone to assess the strength and general health of the animals, and to recommend slaughter of the weakest. The assessment process is voluntary, and many farmers are angrily rejecting the whole idea. “My cows are living creatures, the same as humans,” said one farmer, “and I will never allow them to be culled.” Unhappily, the farmer had no better solution, and neither does the government. Many farmers in this middle zone hold out hope that radiation levels will drop sufficiently enough and soon enough for them to return to their work full-time, without the necessity of abandoning their herds. Compensation for their loss of income in the meanwhile has yet to be arranged or even discussed in detail, since everything on the Fukushima -area agenda is pressing and urgent, and this is only one piece of the puzzle.
Now back to an issue I wrote about in a earlier post: rubble, or “gareki” in Japanese. Although the plan is to build prefab houses in order to move people from shelters and help their transition to independence, most places are still bogged down with rubble–clearing away, rather than building up. The challenges faced depend on the nature of the town, and attempts to tackle one problem often cause a chain reaction that leads to a different problem. For instance…..Let’s talk about mud. Towns and villages closest to the seaside were inundated with mud from the tsunami; it filled entire first floors of schools, city houses, and homes, and blanketed everything in its wake. US and Japanese military forces, wearing tight-fitting masks, have been shovelling out the classrooms of elementary schools, and residents are returning to their homes to attempt to clear away the mud and make what’s left of their houses livable, most living on the dry second floor, though without water or electricity. The mud is drying fast in the warm air of Spring, and has already created a new insidious killer: dust. This week’s news spoke of outbreaks of pneumonia in several towns along the coast, with an alarming number of deaths among the elderly. X Rays revealed that the old folks all shared something in common–a build-up of “sludge” in the lungs, caused, of course, from a constant inhaling of the unhealthy, fetid, dust-filled air. Older folks are already at a higher risk for such diseases, and many do not have the strength or will to fight back. These grandmas and grandpas die quietly, and their families receive no monetary compensation, as their deaths were not directly connected to either the tsunami, the quake, or the nuclear disaster.
The areas close to the Fukushima plant present their own special challenge , because the level of radiation has been too high to attempt any sort of clean-up at all until this week. As of yesterday, the city of Futaba, five kilos from the plant, has been evaucuated and declared safe to search. One hundred and twenty police in protective gear moved into the ghost town, where laundry still hangs from the verandas of deserted houses, and cows, horses, and abandoned pets roam the streets freely. In the relatively untouched neighborhoods. In other neighborhoods, houses have been flattened completely, and the delicate process of prying and probing for bodies has begun. The process is delicate because the bodies must be approached respectfully, and also with the utmost care, since decomposition is already advancing to the point where the sex of the body is often unrecognizable, and rough handling leads to further disintegration. A month from now, the summer heat will begin in earnest, and an intense military search involving 24,800 soldiers has begun along the coastline (including all damaged prefectures), with the goal of retrieving as many of the 25,000 missing bodies as possible before the humidity sets in. I cannot imagine being a policeman in Tohoku these days; or rather, I can, and putting myself in their shoes spoils my appetite instantly and brings a familiar burning to my eyes. Glad my husband is safe in academia.
Outside of Fukushima, the clearing of rubble proceeds slowly and carefully-again, everything is done with a measure of caution and respect, which means progress is creeping, rather than striding. Clean-up crews report to shelter residents when their neighborhoods are due to be tackled, and residents (especially older residents not directly involved with the clean-up efforts) follow workers to the site, watching intently as the machines begin to rip apart damaged houses. Those on the ground are quick to spot bodies or mementos, and the machines stop immediately to ensure that bodies are removed carefully, and mementos are retrieved. There seems to be a good relationship between the drivers and diggers and the residents who follow alongside them; considering that those on the clean-up crews have also lost wives, children or homes, this is not surprising. Although time is short and the summer heat is approaching, officials in the coastal areas approve of this slow and personalized approach. As Hiromitsu Iwama, overseeing the debris removal in the coastal city of Natori, was quoted in the International Herald Tribune, “It’s kind of an unspoken decency.”
Meanwhile, back in the schools…..children from Fukushima have been shuttled off to undamaged and radiation-free schools in the surrounding areas, where classrooms are full to bursting! The normal class size in Japan is between 30 to 40 students (forty is closer to the average in my city, Hadano); teachers are now struggling to bring order to classes of 50 to 60 students, many of whom are emotionally scarred and fearful of bullying ( You’re from Fukushima??? Oh, man, get away from me!! You’ve got radiation sickness!! ) . Incidents of bullying or isolation in elementary schools have already been reported, and teachers and social workers are scrambling to educate students and parents to ensure that the situation does not escalate. Many schools still do not have functional kitchens or electricity, so lunch consists of a huge serving of “kashi-pan” , or snack bread, and a milk box.
Still, the kids we see on TV look happy to have even this, and are seen wolfing down their lunch meal with gusto. School children from the Kanto area have been writing letters of encouragement to the Tohoku children, and they are benefitting from fund-raisers across the country. Like most folks in the Kanto area, I have not been out and about much since the quake, but each time I have gone into Tokyo or Machida, I have seen high school students at the station, collecting for charity or giving outdoor concerts to benefit the victims. A band based in New Orleans has sent an entire collection of brand-new instruments across the ocean as a gift to the “Swing Dolphins”, a Jr. High band from Kesennuma who had lost their instruments in the tsunami! This was apparently a love gift, sent in return for a similar gift from Japan after the Katrina disaster. These are the stories that give us hope, and inspire people far from the disaster zone to do their part as well. Kabuki actors in Tokyo are dimming their stage lights to conserve energy. Directors are cutting lines from scripts to shorten plays for the same reason. Tanaka Yoshiko, a well-loved singer and actress who passed away last week used her own funeral as a platform to speak for the victims, playing a recording she had made weeks before her death, promising to “help the victims in Heaven”. Foreigners across the country are using their connections to their own countries to spread the word, fundraise, and come up with creative solutions to the challenges faced by their adopted country. One of these foreigners, I read, was a refugee from Myanmar who had been arrested in his own country, fled to Japan via Thailand, and ended up living in a park in Tokyo, washing dishes and doing odd jobs during the day. He was summarily arrested again as an illegal alien, and spent two years in a Japanese prison, finally gaining the status of refugee and finding work as an interpreter. He had overcome his own personal hell, gained re-entrance and acceptance into Japanese society (Not an easy thing. That’s another story in itself! ), and wanted to repay his debt to the country he now calls his home. He and ten other Burmese friends have already donated 200,000 yen to the victims. A shepherd from Mongolia has asked the Mongolian Red Cross to assist him in sending a sheep to Japan as a gesture of goodwill and support. Stories like this help us to keep an uneasy emotional balance, and to trust that the forces assembled will be enough to tackle the immensity of the job at hand.
Aftershocks are still occurring daily, even in the Tokyo area, but the intensity has died down significantly. Still, some children remain anxious, and mothers hover close; at the annual Easter party at my English school, one four-year-old insisted that his mother sit directly behind him the entire time, “…because an earthquake might come and crack all my eggs, so I’ll need help.” Though the rest of the children had cheerfully said good-bye to their mothers at the door, this mother respected her child’s fears and stayed behind him for the full hour as a reassuring presence. Happily, there were no aftershocks that day, and only one cracked egg. …. Stay tuned for the next episode; it’s all true, I swear.