This post is about farmers, and especially for farmers, whether in Japan or abroad. The story starts with my daughter’s eighteenth
birthday party last Saturday, which was intended to be a beef barbeque, Japanese-style, on a big teppan grill. My daughter is actually not crazy about meat, but the men in the family are, and since they’re the grillers we can’t deny them their beef. I had plenty of fresh vegetables prepared for the ladies (I’m not crazy about beef either), and Yaki-Soba ready to serve at the end. Problem was……irradiated beef has been floating about various regions of Japan, and folks feel more than a bit anxious about buying any meat at all. This month, high levels of radioactive cesium were detected in beef originating from cattle in Fukushima Prefecture….cattle from farms outside of the evacuation zone, who had unfortunately been eating rice straw which had been contaminated by radioactive rainwater. The cattle had been slaughtered, the meat shipped out to various prefectures across Japan, bought by consumers, and presumably already savored in summer barbeques such as the one we were planning. The central government has been racing to locate unsold meat and has promised to buy back whatever they find and take responsibility for disposing of it, but people across the country are still in an uproar about lax testing standards (the cows were tested for radiation levels only on the surface of their hides, which gave no indication that they bore internal radiation poisoning), and no-one has an appetite for meat.
Except my son. When I declared we would have a meat-less birthday celebration for his sister this year, he flounced, pouted, and proclaimed himself ready and willing to risk radiation poisoning for the sake of his meat (red meat is not, after all, an everyday thing in Japan, and my son looks forward to these indulgences). In the end, we compromised and bought a small amount of Australian beef, paying a ridiculous price for it; this made my son inordinately happy, though the birthday girl couldn’t have cared less.
From the consumers (my son’s) point of view, the irradiated beef scandal is a pain in the neck. From the Fukushima farmers’ point of view, of course, it’s another chapter in the continuing saga of their fight for survival. Some farmers are organizing, finding support, and attempting to make a go of it. Others have given up. And at least one has taken his own life, in a grim story devoid of light but full of lessons. Let me begin with the story of that farmer.
On July 2nd, the Asahi Shinbun reported a 54 year old farmer from the village of Soma (Fukushima Prefecture) was found dead in his shed, having left a suicide note scrawled on the shed wall in white chalk. “Remaining dairy farmers: Don’t be defeated by the nuclear accident. Do your best.” Before the quake, the farmer had lived on the farm with his Filipino wife and two sons, caring for his 40 head of cattle and selling compost as well. He was looking forward to expanding his farm, buying new equipment, and attending his oldest son’s entrance ceremony for elementary school. After March 11, everything changed. Soma village is 50 kilos from the Daiichi Power Plant; it is technically outside of the heavily contaminated evacuation zone, but not far enough away to absolutely guarantee the safety of livestock and food products. The farmer was forced by the government to halt shipments of milk, and began the heartbreaking routine of feeding and milking his cows, then pouring the milk into the ground. He continued for a month, feeding and caring for his herd without a source of income.
In the meantime, his wife returned to the Philippines, taking the two children with her. She was responding to pressure from her own government to evacuate the prefecture, as did many foreigners in the months of March and April. This may be difficult to fathom, but many other international families made the same choice. Also, the March 11th quake hit the village of Soma hard. The aftershocks, which were frightening enough in the Tokyo area, must have continued to terrify the farmer and his family, as well as the explosions and unstable condition of the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Rumors of radiation poisoning were running rampant, and noone knew what was actually happening. His wife had to choose between a safe haven for her children and staying to support her husband–either choice would’ve been difficult and painful. She chose the former, and from that point on the farmer’s life must have lost any remaining sense of purpose. Just two weeks later he fled the country himself, taking refuge with his wife’s family in the Philippines. Neighboring friends and family picked up the pieces he had left behind, dividing up his cows and taking over their care and feeding.
I wish that the story could’ve ended at that point, with the farmer finding a new life and identity in his wife’s country. Instead, he was back in Soma in early May; he returned alone, to an empty farmhouse and barn. Apologizing to the friends who had taken care of his cows, he explained that he had wanted to stay with his wife abroad, but had been unable to speak the language. I imagine a shy man, jobless and tongue-tied, at the mercy of his mother-in-law and extended family, and can empathize to some extent. Being illiterate in any society is a challenge, and the emotional strain of being unable to express oneself or-conversely-to be understood is one that those who have never travelled or lived abroad will never know. It can make you crazy.
The story ends soon after the farmer’s return to Soma. An agricultural co-op worker visited his farm to deliver a magazine, and found him dead in his own shed. An accompanying letter read, “To my wife and children, I am sorry. I was a father who could do nothing. ” Two hundred local farmers, friends, and family attended the funeral, as well as his wife and children.
This story was particularly disturbing to me; the farmer (whose name was not released to the press) was unable to help himself, desperately lonely, financially pressed, and facing an unknown future. In Japan, suicide is a way of saving face, restoring one’s pride, and making reparations. With no support system in place for farmers after the quake, suicide must have seemed to be his best option. After the quake, farmers in the Fukushima area were in limbo, with no income, no guidelines, no reliable source of information, and no organized support, either practical or emotional. The farmer who took his life faced this situation alone after his wife left, and the burden was simply too heavy. Unable to re-invent himself, yet unable to return to the life he knew, he chose an early exit, apologizing for his own failure to change events that were beyond his control.
Now let’s do a three-point-turn: back up and listen to another farmer’s story, with quite a different twist. This farmer, Yoshizawa-san, is from Namie Village, which lies inside the evacuation zone. Namie is now a ghost town; residents are scattered through different towns and prefectures, some returning periodically (in organized excursions) to check on their houses and grounds. Yoshizawa-san supports a herd of 300 cows within the evacuation zone, and carries a special permit enabling him to return to his farm once
a week to feed and care for his herd. The cows, by the way, have been condemned to slaughter for some time now. They have been drinking radioactive water, eating radioactive hay, and breathing radioactive air. Though they have no external symptoms, they are marked by internal radiation poisoning, and their milk is worthless on the market-likewise, their meat. Yoshizawa knows this–it is irrefutable. Yet he is waging a determined campaign to save them, and has even collected more strays to add to his herd in the process. He has painted, “Save them or die trying!” on his barn’s roof and on signs along the road to his farm, and has allowed independent film makers access to his property (sneaking them in under a plastic tarp on his truck, as they did not have the required entry passes) to take photos and interview him. His cows (and his neighbors’ abandoned cows, who have voluntarily joined his herd) are roaming free on his property, subsisting mostly on grass and the hay that he delivers weekly. They still come to greet him when he arrives, he says, and he has no intention of deserting them. Yet he realizes that within six months, there will be no grass left on his property for grazing, and he fears slow but inevitable starvation. Yoshizawa-san vows to keep his cows alive out of respect for the animals, and also as a protest against both the government and TEPCO, who created his situation by promoting nuclear power. Watch the video, and you can’t help but admire the man: he is well-spoken, passionate, organized, committed, and has a natural
magnetism that will aid him in his cause. He already has the film-makers on his side. Here is a man who intends to control his own fate at whatever cost. Enough said! Here’s the video of Yoshizawa, explaining just why the government should allow him to save his cows.
Smart man, eh? And brave as well. Where central and local governments have been unable to bring order from chaos, individual leaders have been springing up, giving hope and purpose to those around them who’ve been unable to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Truth is, Yoshizawa-san can’t see the light either, but he’s willing to live with that uncertainty. I will follow his story if possible, though news from the true inside is harder and harder to come by these days.
Lastly, I want to return to the story of the two film-makers (remember? Yoshizawa-san snuck them into his farm under a tarp). They’re an international couple: Junko Kajino and Ed M. Koziarski. Their goal is to produce a film documenting the efforts of organic farmers in Tohoku in the post-quake months (years? I’m not sure). They intend to follow the lives of local farmers from planting to harvest, to see how they adapt to the changed conditions of the air, water, and soil in Fukushima since the nuclear disaster. They believe in sustainable agriculture and energy, and hope to produce a documentary for international broadcast and distribution. They are staying at the “Colors of the Seasons Farm”, 45 miles from the Daiichi plant, and just twenty miles outside of the evacuation zone. Their host family, the Yoshidas, are an extended family (even the grandma puts in a day’s work) whose specialty is “firefly rice”, so named because after the family stopped using pesticides and began farming organically, fireflies returned to their neighborhood. The father of the Yoshida family says of their proximity to the Fukushima Daiichi plant, “We don’t know if our crops will be safe. We can’t ignore this issue. But we won’t stop cultivating our land. We need farmers to nurture the environment, nature and culture, and pass them on to the next generation. ” They realize that they their produce may not be salable, but at least they will be self-sufficient.
The film-makers, Junko and Ed (I hope I am not being too familiar) have a web site called “Uncanny Terrain”. It’s chock-full of interviews, photos, and thoughts from people living on the inside of the evacuation zone, and those in the grey area just outside . Here’s the link; I know you will enjoy it, and learn something as well. http://uncannyterrain.com/blog/ In closing, I’d like to quote from the Uncanny Terrain blog. The two film-makers ask a crucial question that the country as a whole, and all countries with functioning nuclear reactors, need to consider. Here’s what they have to say: “After suffering the world’s only nuclear attacks in World War II, Japan emerged from poverty and devastation and entered into a period of unprecedented technological innovation and economic growth. Can today’s Japanese respond to this catastrophe with new forms of innovation that will allow this nuclear-dependent society to continue providing healthy food to its people, and live in better harmony with the natural world?” Let us hope they can. Let us support those farmers who have not yet given up the battle, and say a prayer for those who did not make it. The animals, too. Thank you again for reading, and take care in the summer heat.