To Fukushima and Back with Hiro

A Japanese man sits on the floor of a 4-mat-sized room, staring at a TV set neatly fitted into a corner. There’s enough room for the man, the TV, and a low plastic coffee table. Clean clothes and hung on hooks along the wall, and laundry hangs from the curtain rail. What’s the story here?

Watanabe-san's living space.

Watanabe-san’s living space.

I asked that question to photo journalist Hiro Ugaya as we pored over his photos from a recent trip to Fukushima. “He’s an old friend,” said Hiro, “whose wife and son have evacuated to Yamagata. He’s been looking for work for six months, but the only available jobs are related to decontamination or decommissioning of the crippled nuclear power plant, and he doesn’t want to resort to either of those options. Still, as bad as the situation is in Fukushima, the economy’s worse in Yamagata, so he stays where he is.”

Hiro Ugaya 2

Photo Journalist Hiro Ugaya in Tokyo.

Hiro, a native of Kyoto living and working in Tokyo, has made nearly 50 trips back and forth to Fukushima since the triple disaster of 3/11, capturing scenes of life near the evacuation zone with his trusty Canon 5D Mark 3.  Read more about him here. He travels alone, going as far north as possible by train and then renting a car in Fukushima to drive along the coast. This month, he visited his friend Watanabe-san (pictured above), and stayed at a local hotel filled with temporary workers hired from all parts of Japan to do decontamination work in the outer regions of the evacuation zone. “Business is booming,” said Hiro, “but only if you want to work in irradiated areas.”

Although Hiro took hundreds of photos from the various coastal towns near the disabled Daiichi power plant, I want to focus mainly on his photos from Iitate Village. They reflect the slow but steady progress of the Herculean task of decontamination and serve as a sobering reminder of the sheer ugliness and shame of what happened in Fukushima. All photos in this post are Hiro’s, and all but one are from his recent November trip.

The beautiful groves in Iitate have been contaminated.

The beautiful groves in Iitate have been contaminated.

Iitate Village (pronounced EE-ta-tay), a highland farming area northwest of the crippled nuclear power plant, lies outside of the designated 30 Kilometer radius of the government-determined evacuation zone. But those of you who have followed the story, know that on March 15th, a gusty winter wind blew particles of radiation straight toward the mountains of Iitate. The wind was accompanied by snow, which blanketed the entire area.  Stores, schools, houses, trees, rice paddies, vegetable gardens, and grazing pastures were all heavily contaminated, though no-one guessed at first because of the village’s physical distance from the center of the nuclear disaster.  Of course, the evacuation map was drawn as a perfect circle, with multiple rings indicating distance from the radius, and Iitate was far from that radius. If only radiation travelled so neatly, without regard to weather or topography, right?

Iitate Village, northwest of the official evacuation zone, was heavily contaminated and later evacuated.

Iitate Village in relation to the original designated evacuation zone.

The evacuation of Iitate did not begin until April 22nd (over a month after the meltdown and the explosions occurred) and was not finished until late August of 2011; residents were inadvertantly exposed to high levels of radiation as well as emotional stress and confusion. For many of the elderly people who evacuated from Iitate and are still  in temporary housing, living with depression, disappointment, and lingering sadness has become the new normal. Worse yet, residents from towns near the epicenter of the accident were also exposed to excess radiation when they were initially relocated to Iitate, which was considered a safe refuge shortly after the meltdowns. This was a tragedy that could have been prevented if the central government (not wanting to “incite panic”) had released a map known as SPEEDI, containing specific data regarding the path of the plume of radioactivity. You can read about it here, in an early blog entry from 2012.

So what’s the story on Iitate now, more than three years down the road? Well, some readers may be surprised to learn that although the level of radiation in many areas of Iitate remains high, the village is no longer “off-limits”. Former residents can now come and go freely and decontamination work is progressing–slowly, painstakingly–in hopes that the village will be revitalized. The mayor is determined that it will be. The problem is that Iitate is bordered by forestland. Since the nuclear disaster, trees are now cesium repositories, and many traditional houses in the village are situated in close proximity to sheltering groves, which serve as windbreaks. The trees that once sheltered homes have now contaminated them, and they are uninhabitable.

Hiro photos 2

Good luck cleaning the whole forest .

The central government does not consider forestland “residential”, and does not place a high priority on decontamination of the trees that define residents’ backyards. The reality is that many local residents must either abandon their homes, or attempt to “clean” the forestland lying closest to their houses, essentially stripping the forest of its ecosystem.  Think of Iitate as a mountainous forest which humans have made habitable by clearing and cultivating the land for generations. Now it is

No-one's picking persimmons in Iitate this year. (photo by Hiro Ugaya)

No-one’s picking persimmons in Iitate this year.

impossible to guarantee the safety of the land for humans without destroying the ecosystem itself, which is steeped in cesium, from the shiitake mushrooms that flourish in the contaminated forest to the wild boars that feed on the mushrooms. Cesium from the forest is carried down to the village with each rain or snowfall, and previously cleared terrain is re-contaminated. On the flat areas below the forest, work progresses at a painfully slow rate, and deadlines that prove impossible to adhere to are continually being re-assessed and re-determined. Booming business for the decontamination workers means a longer exile for residents still hoping to return in the near future.

The above assessment sounds and is harsh, but there is another vision. Many residents of Iitate and of similar small villages and towns in Fukushima believe that the land can be rescued and revitalized without destroying the ecosystem. You can read more about them in this transcript of an NHK broadcast from December 2013.  Although the English translation reads imperfectly, the photos, personal stories and quotes from local residents gathered by Swiss journalist Susan Boos are food for thought.

Decontamination means plant life is cut down or pulled up, and topsoil is dug up and bagged neatly .

Decontamination means plant life is cut down or pulled up, and topsoil is dug up and bagged neatly .

Unlike the land around  the Chernobyl nuclear disaster site, which was left to revert to its natural state, Fukushima’s contaminated areas are being stripped, scrubbed, plowed, drained, and stirred up; Boos wanted to know why. The transcript describing her visit to Iitate Village is interesting because it makes no mention of the decontamination work being funded by the central government, focusing instead on the efforts of individual farmers who have lived and worked in Iitate for generations. Frustrated with the slow pace of the clean-up, Iitate residents have been doing things their own way, taking detailed measurements of radiation levels, creating radiation maps, and developing alternative methods for reducing the effects of cesium in the soil.

“From now on,” says Iitate farmer Muneo Kanno in the transcript, “we will need to coexist with nature in this contaminated area over many generations. In other words, I think it’s our job to collect all the data we can about contamination and pass it on to the future generations….I strongly believe that this is the first and foremost role both for me and all the other local people.”

Iitate residents have co-existed with nature for generations.

Iitate residents have co-existed with nature for generations

Kanno and other volunteer farmers and researchers are committed to accurately evaluating the state of their land, recording their findings, and experimenting with solutions. For them, decontamination  is “Not just to remove everything, to wash, to brush and to think now the problem is done.”  Boos, who has travelled the world reporting on the conditions of nuclear disaster sites, was deeply impressed by the devotion of the Iitate farmers to their land and by their determination to preserve it for future generations. The transcript reads, “Susan has travelled to many parts of the word, but this is the first time for her to be exposed to such deep affection for someone’s home.”

Decontamination workers in Iitate, November 2014 (photo by Hiro Ugaya).

Decontamination workers in Iitate, November 2014 .

So who actually lives in Iitate Village right now?  As of September 2014, a few hundred people have received permission to return home permanently, based on the location of their land. They are living in the zone that’s deemed “safe”, or at least”safe enough”. The area of Iitate still under decontamination and deemed “uninhabitable” is populated by day-trippers (former residents who commute into the village weekly–or even daily– to check on their houses, pets, or gardens), professional contamination workers, and the occasional journalist like Hiro, collecting stories, measuring radiation, and snapping pictures. It’s a ghost town at night.

Decontamination work: is it worth the money?

Decontamination work: is it worth the money?

On his most recent trip to Fukushima, Hiro, as I mentioned in the beginning of this post, stayed in a local hotel south of the Daiichi nuclear power plant. “I was lucky to get a room,” he said. “It’s always full these days. All guys, and all working in decontamination. ” Since there were no restaurants in town (read: nuclear zone, no tourists), Hiro and the other workers made a mad rush to the 7-11 , which closed at 8 p.m., to buy box lunches for their dinner every evening.  According to Hiro, the going rate for a decontamination worker in Fukushima right now is around ¥16,000  to 17,000a day–approximately $145 U.S. dollars– before money is taken out by contractors and sub-contractors.  Is it worth the money? That’s something that every man ( I saw no women in any of the photos) must come to terms with on his own.

From here on in, I will let Hiro-san’s photos speak for themselves. You can read more about Iitate’s mountains of trash bags full of contaminated soil in this Japan Times article, which describes the current plan to build a 22 million cubic meter temporary waste storage facility in the Okuma/ Futaba area, home of the crippled power plant. That’s a space big enough to fill the Tokyo Dome Stadium 15 times. And you can read more about the plight of the old folks who have evacuated from Iitate and other neighboring towns in this article by The Guardian’s Justin McCurry. And you can support the excellent work of free lance journalists like Hiro Ugaya by passing on their words and images. Take a look at more of his stunning photos and read about his life here.  I’ll post some of my favorites as well. Thank you for reading, and take care.

In Iitate, bags of radioactive waste are encircled by bags of sand, used to "seal in" radiation.

In Iitate, bags of radioactive waste are encircled by bags of sand, used to “seal in” radiation.

The same site, seen from a distance.

The same site, seen from a distance.

...and finally, the site seen from above, complete with fall foliage.

…and finally, the site seen from above, complete with fall foliage.

Bags of topsoil are transported by truck and neatly stacked.

Bags of topsoil are transported by truck and neatly stacked.

"Fukushima smells beautiful," said Hiro. "The flowers have gone wild."

“Fukushima smells beautiful,” said Hiro. “The flowers have gone wild.”


DEFEATED or LEARNING TO STAND STRONG ? Women’s life in Fukushima since the quake

“IS STUPIDITY A SYMPTOM OF ACUTE RADIATION EXPOSURE TOO?”  (read the headline of  a blog post I received via e-mail the other day. ) Startled and offended, I marked it with a star and put off reading the article.  When I calmed down and skimmed through the post , I found its offensiveness consistent; in short, blaming parents in Fukushima for allowing and the Japanese government for encouraging children to play in a contaminated environment. “Everyone has gone mad!” declared the author of the post, peppering his diatribe with exclamation marks!!


And then there were these words from a cover letter I received after buying some badges to support the opposition of nuclear power in Fukushima:  “Fukushima people are silent. They do not have the courage to express their concerns regarding the future use of nuclear power…..The true defeatists are those who remain in Fukushima, who say they have no choice other than to make their living in the contaminated areas….They are beaten. Constant radiation and relentless social pressure has (sic) clearly made many Fukushimans tired and passive.”

Really?  Fukushima residents are “stupid”? “beaten”? “passive”?  Robbed of their wits and their voices by the effects of radiation and social pressure? Isn’t it only too easy to be judgmental from the outside, and to mistakenly attribute one’s own voice and heartfelt conviction to others who are deemed “voiceless”?  Other troubling phrases and declamations embedded in the blog posts and facebook updates I scroll through regularly had been nagging at me, and when my geographer friend Yukari invited me on a day trip to Fukushima City, I jumped at the chance. “Hah!” I thought. “The whole truth won’t be revealed in a day, but at least I’ll have had a peek at things from the inside.”


Our bullet train to Northern Japan. It’s sleek and awesomel

And so I set off, leaving Shinjuku at 6:58 in the morning (trains run precisely to the minute here)  meeting up with Yukari in Oomiya, the very cool station where several different bullet trains converge briefly before gliding off again to their respective destinations. We rode “Yamabiko”, named after a Japanese “echoing spirit” that’s heard but not seen; try to touch it, the legend says, and you feel something like molasses on your hand.

After we had devoured our boxed breakfasts and enjoyed an hour or so of gossip on the train, Yamabiko slid smoothly into the Fukushima station, and we were ready for business. Yukari’s two geographer friends joined us at the station and we squeezed into a taxi, directing the driver to the address of the Fukushima Midwives Association ‘s main office in the Watari district.


No shortage of taxis at the Fukushima station…

Why exactly were three geography professors keen on interviewing the president of a midwives association? Well, having assisted in translating Yukari’s papers over the course of fifteen years, I can tell you. Geography is more than just countries, capitals, landscapes, and vegetable crops. It is subdivided into two related fields–human geography and physical geography–with geographers focusing on one or the other, or (not uncommonly) on the interaction between the two. One of the best examples of this would be my daughter’s college in Bar Harbor, Maine, which offers only one degree, in “Human Ecology”, or the relationship between man and his environment.  All students of the College of the Atlantic are geographers by the time they graduate, and the geography professors packed into the taxi in Fukushima were human ecologists as well: prepared to ask hard questions about raising children in a contaminated environment. I was there as an interested third party, and as the official photo publicist.

Our driver guided the taxi through a maze of narrow residential streets quite similar to my own neighborhood in Hadano, and left us off at an unobtrusive little white apartment building.  Up a steep concrete staircase, and before we could ring the bell, the door few open. “Well, here you are!”  beamed a small grandmotherly-type woman with fuschia-colored lipstick and a lovely floral patterned jacket and skirt.  I mention this because my image of a “midwife” is of unshaven legs, Birkinstock sandals, and long flowing hair. Certainly the midwives who attended me at my two births had done nothing to dispel that image. Ishida Tokiko-san, President of the Fukushima Midwives Association, was dressed fancy to receive visitors, and she welcomed us into her office with a warm smile.

Ishida-san and her assistant, Yuri Sanpei, seated at their cozy "office" table.

Ishida-san and her assistant, Yuri Sanpei, seated at their cozy “office” table.

Her “office” was nothing more than a one room Japanese-style apartment, with tiny kitchen and bathroom attached, yet it was light and pleasant; the main centerpiece was a good-sized low table (we call them “coffee tables” in the US, but they’re used for serious eating in Asian countries) with cushions rather than chairs. The decor was a large white banner with messages of love and encouragement sent from America. “You must be surprised at this tiny place,” said Ishida-san cheerfully, “…but imagine how difficult it was before we found a place to set up headquarters after the quake!” …..And that was the beginning of a four hour story session, as each question posed by one of the three geographers led naturally to an incident that begged to be related.

Here are bits and pieces of what we learned:

It was chaos for mothers with babies and small children when the quake occurred, followed by the tsunami and the explosions at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Those who survived but lost their homes fled to public evacuation centers, sleeping on gymnasium floors along with other families and  scores of elderly citizens.  But communal living was stressful; babies howled uncontrollably and needed to be nursed, and mothers felt the strain of trying to “keep the peace” so that the family on the futons next to them could sleep. Public officials did their best to move families with babies into the only available housing in the prefecture: civil servants’ office buildings and rooms at Japanese-style inns located far west of Hamadori, the area of Fukushima hardest hit by the plume of radioactivity. This was only a temporary solution, since the office buildings had no utilities or furnishings, and rooms at the inns were cramped quarters for extended families. Eventually, families moved again, some moving multiple times before finding something that functioned as “home”.


Many mothers fled with small children to live with relatives in less-contaminated parts of the prefecture, leaving fathers behind to “keep house”.

In short, during the first few months after the quake before temporary housing was completed, mothers and their small children were scattered, scrambling to find safety, privacy and protection from the elements. Some lived in cars, some in tents, and some with relatives in other cities or prefectures; some went back to stick it out in partially-damaged houses and some accepted offers of temporary housing from far-away parts of the country.  And as the first temporary housing complexes were completed, some families moved into the tidy little box-like apartments to begin new lives in artificially-created communities.

During those first few chaotic months, Ishida-san and her staff worked tirelessly (though I’m sure they were tired to the point of collapse) to make sure that new mothers received both practical and emotional assistance and that pregnant women received adequate care.  Since town registers were in the process of being re-created, midwives had no other recourse but to take their own population census, going door-to-door looking for pregnant women and mothers with small children. Gas was scarce, so they walked or bicycled about their neighborhoods armed with diapers and baby wipes. Needless to say, their diaper crusade was a volunteer effort until some months later, when money began to trickle down from various places. I was humbled and impressed to learn that in the first year, the midwives of Fukushima were important connecters: they scouted out young families in apartments and reported their residence to town officials for the registry; conversely, they also received information on available apartments from town officials and brought the news directly to families in need of shelter.

Mothers who took advantage of the "Satogaeri" facilities pose for a photo.

Mothers who took advantage of the “Satogaeri” facilities pose for a photo.

In the fall of 2011, an aid group in Tokyo stepped in to create a unique and much-appreciated option for pregnant women and young mothers:  a center for rest and recuperation after birth, located in relatively safe (everything related to “safety” is relative here)  Aizu district of Fukushima. The “Satogaeri”, or “Return to the Hometown” project was popular from the start, providing a physical and emotional shelter for mothers.  Yet after an all-too-brief two week stay at the safe and welcoming center for new mothers, women returned to their previous living arrangements to face the challenges of motherhood in post-3/11 Fukushima.

At this point, Ishida-san’s assistant, Sanpei-san, told us of her own experiences raising her one-year-old son during the first year after the quake. Those were the days when children did not play outside. When Yuri and her son did leave the house, she could not use the baby stroller or let him walk, as the child would be too close to the ground (where radiation levels were highest).  She carried her son everywhere, no matter how far, and returned to the house exhausted. Coming home meant brushing off outside dirt (again, dirt meant radioactive particles) , and washing and hanging (inside) more loads of clothes.  What did she do inside with her toddler all day long? ” We read books. I tried baby massage. I fought with my husband.” Many women, she said, took their stress out on their children. Husbands and wives fought. Mother-in-laws and their daughter-in-laws fought. Friends drifted apart. Some individuals owned multiple geiger counters and obsessively measured the radiation level of their houses and yards which often increased anxiety, rather than relieving their fears. Everyone was vulnerable to criticism, vulnerable to unfounded rumors, and struggling with fear and uncertainty.

A Fukushima midwife on a home visit.

A Fukushima midwife on a home visit.

Throughout this difficult time, Ishida-san and her colleagues increased their efforts to rally  fellow midwives and organize services to ease the emotional needs of mothers who had chosen to live in Fukushima prefecture. The Midwives Association set up a telephone support line, which was flooded with calls on a daily basis. They also started a “salon” where mothers could bring their small children to meet regularly and interact in a supportive environment, free from criticism and negativity. Midwives paid home visits to new mothers and helped them through the first stages of breast-feeding. They received samples of breast milk from nursing mothers and sent it off to labs to test its radiation level. They got out their calculators and helped nervous mothers figure out their daily exposure to low-level radiation. Rather than giving advice, the midwives provided practical assistance, emotional support, and a collective listening ear.

And now, let’s get to the meat of this post. What I really wanted to know and really hated to ask was, Why were so many mothers still living in the Watari area, which has been the focus of negative publicity for the past two years?  “Save the children of Watari!”  has been the rallying cry of NGOs and citizens’ action groups who believe that the Japanese government is guilty of criminal neglect for not providing evacuation money to the citizens of this district.

Fukushima's Watari district in the spring. Beautiful...but is it safe to life here?

Fukushima’s Watari district in the spring. Beautiful…but is it safe to live here?

The district known as Watari is 60 kilometers from the Daiichi nuclear power plant, well outside of the designated evacuation zone, and the government has chosen to tackle the issue of low-level radiation via ongoing decontamination rather than providing financial support for those who choose to leave. Opponents of the government’s decision, however, claim that the radiation levels remain alarmingly high and that families should not be raising children there.  I  wanted to know how many mothers still wished to leave the Watari district, but were unable to find financial support.  I wanted to know if mothers were simply stuck there, or if they had made a choice to remain despite the negative publicity.

Ishida-san answered my questions  bluntly. “Hmm.” she said. “Wanting to leave, but don’t have financial means? No, we get no calls like that here at the center. That’s not a factor at all these days. Those who live here have made their choice.”

Oh.  Well, then.  I guess “Save the Children!”  is a campaign without a cause. Or a cause that has run its course and is no longer relevant?  Or perhaps those families waiting to get out are still too paranoid or ashamed to go public with their appeal?

According to Ishida-san, the “Save Watari Kids!” organization has done more harm than good in Fukushima by urging residents to flee from their hometown. “Women had just begun to calm down and pick up their lives again and feel positive when people from outside Fukushima Prefecture came in and shook things up.  Mothers who had begun to make progress in coping with their anxieties began doubting again and fell into depression and paranoia.”  Until this point, Ishida-san had spoken matter-of-factly, but here she looked to be holding back tears. I was riveted to her face as she spoke; the issue was undoubtedly more complicated than she intimated, but certainly she was speaking a part of the truth, and speaking it with certainty.

Another part of the truth: internet links to NGOs supporting the evacuation of the

These children enjoyed an extended vacation in Hokkaido, thanks to a charity fund-raising website called "Global Giving".

These children enjoyed an extended vacation in Hokkaido, thanks to a charity fund-raising website called “Global Giving”.

Watari district show that many residents responded positively to the NGO’s efforts to force the central government to enforce stricter safety standards and provide financial support to families wishing to leave. Many residents appreciated the fact that outsiders were able to increase awareness of their situation throughout the country, and even abroad.  And many NGO-sponsored projects to provide children with “radiation-free vacations” in the countryside have proved popular. I have met people involved in the “Save Watari Children” projects (mostly in Tokyo, where they pass out leaflets promoting their activities), and they are good people.

Well-intentioned people also produced the “No Nukes in Fukushima!” badges and wrote the cover letter that gave me pause this morning.  What can be said, then, about their declarations that Fukushima residents are “beaten” and defeated? That they are too passive, and unable to take steps to control their own destinies?

Uuummm….I don’t want to touch that issue with a ten foot pole, a hundred foot pole, or any kind of pole at all.  No-one outside the prefecture has the right to make that kind of judgement, and even Fukushima natives had better choose their words carefully. Ishida-san did have something to say about the character of women in Northern Japan, however, and after a few decades of delivering babies and caring for their mothers, she’s probably qualified to speak out.  Here’s her assessment (translated as accurately as possible by myself) :

“Women of Northern Japan do not express their opinions easily. They often do not have their own opinions, because they are not aware that this is acceptable. They do not know where they stand, because they have not had to take many stands. They are taught to follow, to grit their teeth and bear what’s unpleasant, and to persevere in the face of rough circumstances rather than to affect change. This makes them vulnerable to criticism, to pressure from family, to propaganda campaigns, and to anxiety stemming from uncertainty and indecision. Women are unable to decide anything on their own, so they turn to us for help. We listen, we do not criticize or advise, and we teach them gently how to make decisions. We work with them, rather than telling them.”

Wonderful, right? A midwife service that not only delivers babies, but teaches decision-making and inner strength! …but does it work?

Sadly enough, Ishida-san admitted that women in Northern Japan are emotionally weaker, rather than stronger, since the Great East Japan Earthquake, despite the best efforts of the Midwives’ Association.  And it is a good-sized network: 114 registered midwives serve the Fukushima prefecture, not counting those with licenses who work independently.  Their efforts, however, are not enough to stem the tide of anxiety and fear stemming from the post-meltdown environmental contamination. I realized that since the quake, midwives have been serving as counselors and therapists (Japan has a dearth of both) as well as baby-whisperers, and again was both humbled and impressed.

You can't be too careful. Little ones spend most of the day indoors at many nursery schools in Fukushima. Outside, radiation levels are being checked (photo courtesy of Greenpeace).

You can’t be too careful. Little ones still spend most of the day indoors at many nursery schools in Fukushima. Outside, radiation levels are being checked (photo courtesy of Greenpeace).

Ishida-san and her assistant Yuri-san spoke of their patients with understanding and sympathy, rather than pity.  Since they live in the same district of Fukushima as their patients, they share the same challenges, and they also have chosen to take precautions against nuclear radiation rather than leave their homes and break up their family units. They test their food. They hang laundry inside. They shake dirt off on the doorstep. They clean the outside of their houses with power hoses (courtesy of the central government). They check radiation levels around their homes on a daily basis. They try to stay informed, though this is not easy to do as they are constantly bombarded with conflicting information. They believe that radiation levels have gone down significantly, and that they can build a new life for themselves and their children without leaving Fukushima.

Is this wise?  Have folks’ brains been, as some bloggers like to intimate, addled by radiation poisoning?  Well, that is none of our business, is it?  We all have the right to decide our own course, and as Ishida-san firmly stated, health is not just about physical well-being.  She and Sanpei-san both believe that those who have chosen to stay in the Watari district have made valid decisions based on ties to their family, work commitments, and living arrangements, and that these factors are important for their emotional health.  Ishida-san and her colleagues believe that their job as midwives is not to judge, but to support women, and to encourage them to think for themselves and decide their own futures.  The Fukushima midwives teach by example, dealing with hardship calmly and providing steady encouragement and a dose of old-fashioned common sense.  Isn’t that what’s needed, more than “saving”, when all is said and done?  Perseverance and endurance doesn’t have to mean weakness.

As I mentioned at the onset, our visit at the main office of the Midwives Association lasted a full four hours. Finally, realizing that Ishida-san must be hungry (we ourselves were starving), we excused ourselves and grabbed a taxi back to the Fukushima Station. It was a beautiful day, flowers were blooming, high school girls were hanging out in short uniform skirts, and Main Street looked like any ordinary rural Japanese city center except for the dearth of people. Too many taxis hanging out, too few shoppers lining the sidewalk, and too few tourists buying souvenirs at the station shops. Yukari and I bought some sweet little dumplings to take home, and boarded the super-sleek bullet train headed back to Tokyo, equipped with both food for literal consumption and food for thought.

An ordinary summer day on the main street in Fukushima City.

An ordinary summer day on the main street in Fukushima City.

Wisdom from my Grandmother: Pick up That Mess!

Wherever you live in Japan, everyone agrees:  there’s plenty to be angry about, and plenty to be

Fukushima children lined up for thyroid checks on October 10th (Mainichi Shinbun)

anxious about. Plenty of reasons to feel (at best) confused, and (at worst) betrayed. The past two weeks have flown by, featuring news stories such as FUKUSHIMA BEGINS CHILD THYROID CHECKS ,  STRONTIUM FOUND IN YOKOHAMA ,   CESIUM FOUND IN TOKYO ,  MINAMI-SANRIKU IN DANGER OF FISCAL COLLAPSE (NHK evening news), and RADIOACTIVE CLEANUP TO BE COVERED BY STATE . Each of these stories touched nerves, fanned anxiety, and evoked a mixture of sympathy and frustration in readers of morning papers and watchers of nightly news programs.  Bloggers report and opine, and comments fly fast and furious at the bottom of blog entries. There are those, of course, who don’t read the papers and adhere to strictly- entertainment TV….but even so, the news seeps in.  There’s really no avoiding it. Personally, I welcome it: compared to the vague reports following the March 11th disaster, there is now a wealth of information flowing from both home and abroad, translated into multiple languages, and folks are able to see the situation more objectively from a variety of different points of view.

Inevitably, among the constant barrage of stories and statistics, a single story will leap into my consciousness and stay with me all week, begging to be written about. I generally torment my co-workers and family for the next few days, demanding to know what they think about it, and if they think nothing at all, WHY? Then on the weekend, I’ll attempt to gather my thoughts together and make sense of it here.  This week’s troubling article was from Wednesday’s International Herald Tribune, a compilation of NY Times articles for overseas readers.

In “Japan looks overseas for future of its nuclear trade “,  Hiroko Tabuchi writes about Japan’s plans to continue selling nuclear power technology to developing countries, namely Vietnam and Turkey. “The effort is being made,” she writes, “despite criticism within Japan by environmental groups and opposition politicians. ” But here’s the paragraph that caused myself, and my friend Kimiko, to groan aloud: “It may seem a stretch for Japan to acclaim its nuclear technology overseas while struggling at home to contain the nuclear meltdowns that displaced more than 100,000 people. But Japan argues that its latest technology includes safeguards not present at the decades-old reactors at the stricken Fukushima Daiichi plant, which continues to leak radiation….Japanese officials argue, their nation has learned valuable lessons and has a good nuclear track record for withstanding earlier earthquakes.”

My father-in-law would scoff at the flawed logic of pompous politicians.

Oh, well,  I’ll love to turn the ghost of my dead grandmother, along with my still-living father-in-law, loose in the Japanese Parliament to hear them shoot THAT statement down. “Pick up one mess before you start another!” my grandmother would say, and shame them with her look of moral indignation.  “It’s no use saying you’ve learned a lesson,” my father-in-law would say in disgust. “You have to prove it with action.” He would snort dismissively at pompous lawmakers, reducing them to babbling fools…..but that’s in my dreams. The reality is that it’s not just the central government involved here. Tabuchi’s article reveals that Japan’s top three companies-Hitachi, Mitsubishi, and Toshiba, are all involved in some aspect of nuclear engineering, and are “more eager than ever to look overseas.” Well, simply put, that represents the husbands of some of my co-workers (Hitachi is one of the biggest employers in Hadano), and many other friends as well.  If you count guilt by association. Which I hate to do. In any case, I broached the subject with a friend whose husband works for the Hadano branch of Hitachi.

“Of course we know that Hitachi is involved,” she said. “Everyone does. But what can we do

Hitachi doesn’t just mean wide-screen TVs….

about it?”  Well, EVERYONE didn’t know, because I was still thinking of Hitachi in terms of vacuum cleaners and wide-screen TVs. What a mess. To what degree are ordinary citizens implicated in the corruption of the nuclear industry?  Should Hitachi employees quit their jobs, trade their briefcases for surfboards, and throw their retirement benefits to the wind? One former high-ranking TEPCO employee has done just that (see the video if you’re interested) , but that guy is definitely an exception.  I love my friends. Their husbands are great fathers, great spouses, and hard workers.  They’re not the real bad guys.  Just like the city officials who agreed to host nuclear power plants decades ago are not the real bad guys. Nor are the workers at the power plants, the majority of whom have been assigned their jobs by temporary employment agencies.  And yet, as Haruki Murakami said in his Barcelona speech, if we have remained silent in the face of corruption, we are implicated. It’s not a pretty picture.

In Tabuchi’s article, opposition party lawmaker Itsunori Onodera is quoted as asking, “Why is Japan trying to export something it rejected at home?” Well, obviously because the commitment to nuclear power has not been clearly rejected at home. It’s being “considered”, and that is quite a different thing.  Former Prime Minister Kan stubbornly attempted to commit the nation to a fast-track renewable-energy program, and was widely rebuffed for his hastiness.  Citizens interviewed on TV admit to having doubts about the safety of nuclear power plants, but think they are still a necessary part of the immediate future. Currently only one out of five of Japan’s  nuclear plants is still in service, due to safety checks and damage repairs since the quake; these reactors are technically “in limbo” rather than “out of service”.  The possibility/probability of their re-starting has not been rejected by the current government (they change so quickly), which now announces its intention to export its new and improved technology, complete with “lessons learned.”

With full de-comissioning of the  Daiichi damaged reactors still , according to anyone’s accounts, decades down the road, I would like to know what lessons have been learned. At the end of the summer, I read an article in the Mainichi Shinbun about the complications and costs of de-commissioning, and came away both humbled and appalled. Here’s what I learned:  In simple terms, the process involves cleaning (removing spent fuel rods and decontaminating pipes and containers), waiting (for the level of radiation to go down with time), and dismantling (the final stage, where the facility itself is taken down, and the site reverted to

Cheery-looking entrance to the no-longer-active Tokai Nuclear Power Plant

a vacant lot). Worldwide, only 15 nuclear power plants have actually been de-commissioned.  Japan has only had experience with de-comissioning one, and has not finished the process. That one is the Tokai Power Plant in Ibaragi, where the process of removing spent fuel began in 1998.  Dismantling of the facilities began in 2001, and workers have not yet begun to take apart the reactor itself. Projected cost upon completion?  88.5 billion yen.  Manpower involved?  563,000 people.  The next plant to be de-commissioned will likely be Hamaoka, the aging and controversial plant in Shizuoka Prefecture.  Experts from Hitachi predict the process will take thirty years to complete.

The point is that both Tokai and Hamaoka are “normal” de-comissioning projects, whereas Fukushima is anything but normal. Experts are divided on how long the process will take, how much it will cost, what measures will be most effective, and even whether or not the spent fuel rods can be removed at all. If they can, re-processing will be complicated, and storage sites will be equally problematic.  According to the three step de-comissioning process, work has barely begun, as TEPCO cannot begin to think of removing spent fuel while contaminated water must be constantly cooled and treated, and radiation levels are are so dangerously high that workers are only allowed to work short shifts in rotation. Meiji University expert in reactor engineering and policy Tadahiro Katsuta predicts, “…at least ten years just to determine whether it is possible to remove the fuel,” and a possible fifty years before the de-comissioning is complete. Best to not even attempt full de-comissioning.  Instead, entomb the entire site in concrete, he advises, and others in the field agree. Experts abroad  (as well as those at home, namely Kyoto University Professor Koide ) continue to ask, “Where is the corium?”,  fearing that the core of the reactor (a mixture of melted fuel and other elements) has breached the floor of the containment vessel and is sinking steadily toward the level of the water table, with possible deadly consequences.

As the Mainichi Shinbun article proclaimed, “…what we face is a great unknown to all of

The Fukushima Daiichi clean-up will be measured in decades, not years.

mankind”, and until the Fukushima Daiichi plant has been safely dismantled (or safely entombed) , the lessons have not yet been learned. Even then, environmental research must be continued to learn how the surroundings have changed (they can never return to what they once were) and adapted as a result of widespread contamination.  Of course, the thyroid checks of Fukushima’s children are just part of the medical and sociological research that must continue for decades as well.  It’s incredible to me that the former Prime Minister was condemned for “hastiness” in ordering the shutdown of the Hamaoka plant and in pushing his renewable energy program, while the current government is literally jumping at the chance to re-start negotiations for building new reactors abroad when their own very public disaster is still in a dangerously volatile state. “You haven’t cleaned up your mess!” says my Grandmother, glowering, “and here you go starting a new one!”  “Don’t TELL me you’ve learned a lesson,” frowns my father-in-law. “Show me the proof!” As for me, I mourn for the terrible waste of time and resources involved–time that could be spend in invention and creation, rather than tearing down and decontaminating. How on earth did we manage to become dependent on technology so deadly that it takes nearly half a lifetime to render it harmless after it’s shut down?

Yet because Japan has not clearly rejected nuclear technology, there is actually very little contradiction in its determination to export.  As long as the great majority of citizens remain uncommitted or silent, the government will move ahead with its own agenda. This is the burning question that I think about all the time now: Will enough ordinary citizens finally break their silence and take charge of their own future? It’s hard to know at this point.

Roger Pulvers thinks a volcano of anger could erupt….

It is a hopeful sign that many Japanese young people formally described as “..meek, mild and manageable”  have found  ” ..a renewed awareness in themselves and a belief that they should be doing something to redress the pain and ills their country is experiencing.” (Japan Times, Roger Pulvers, Oct. 8).  Pulvers, an author, playwright, theatre director and professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology believes that the country is ready for an eruption of major proportions.  “Conditions are Ripe for the Volcano of Japan’s Betrayed to Erupt Again” read the heading of his article, which traces a bit of the history of discontent and protest in Japan. Pulvers compares the current state of Japan to a volcano, appearing “..smooth, peaceful, uneventful and unchanging on the surface, while underneath growls the rough heat of anger…..The Japanese people may be placid and obsessed with decorum on the surface, but the cycle of generational change and the build-up of national anger-especially in those sections of society that feel betrayed-is never something to be taken lightly.”  He sees hope in the nation’s young people, who are skilled in social networking and bursting with potential energy.

It’s certainly long past time for college-age students in Japan to begin thinking independently and taking risks. I sent my own son back to the US for college (not that he wasn’t champing at the bit to be gone himself) precisely because I did not want him to living at home in his twenties and spending his part-time job money on electronic toys,

Handbag ad showing sweet and well-accesorized Japanese college girls.

cigarettes, or beer. I know that not all Japanese students do this when they hit the age of twenty, but plenty do.  I will send my daughter abroad as well, as she will be happier wearing jeans and t-shirts to school every day, rather than doing “oshare” with make-up and accessories, as Japanese college girls do. I want them both to live independently, make their own decisions, and bail themselves out of tricky situations rather than calling home.  Japanese college students might risk missing the last train home if they drink too much and forget the time, but otherwise they have fairly cushy lives, requiring very little in the way of sacrifice. This is because ( their parents will tell you)  they suffered terribly in high school studying day and night, and are now taking the reward they deserve. Whatever–it’s not the life I wanted for my own children, and I’m relieved that they made no fuss about studying abroad after living in small-town Japan since their Nursery School days.

Hopefully, Professor Pulvers is right, and the self-absorbtion and limited world view of the college-age students I see around me is morphing into something better and stronger.  It has been refreshing to read the blogs of college students who have volunteered in Tohoku since the quake; many of them have been deeply affected by the people they came in contact with and have returned again and again to continue helping. Most refreshing, of course, and most impressive, has been coming in contact with the hunger strikers–the four young people (plus one who joined halfway through) who camped outside of the METI offices in Kasumigaski for ten days, taking nothing but water and salt. They weren’t concerned with their dress or appearance, or worried that this time away from college might affect their future careers. They were angry, yes, but their anger was under control, and constructively channelled.  My daughter and I took a day to visit them, and I still marvel at their maturity, communication skills, and powers of determination. So I’ll end tonight’s post with a very well-made video clip of the four young people who represent hope for the country. Do take a look, and imagine things from their perspective. They do not want their generation involved in cleaning up a mess it did not make, but they will have no choice. The most they can do is attempt to make that burden lighter for their own children by fighting to bring the era of dependence on nuclear power to a close.

Replace that Roof? Or try the Mysterious Blue Gel……

The sign on the building says it’s a church.  It’s a Baptist Church, actually, in Fukushima. The assembled group of Japanese and Americans are (according to the caption on the website), “standing safely on the porch of their newly decontaminated school”. The church serves as a Nursery School for a group of small children who spent five months inside after the March 11th disaster. Well!  Here are the kids, standing outside (looking both solemn and a bit bewildered ) , with the adults behind them looking downright exuberant. Did some sort of miracle occur here?  I found this photo accidentally while doing a Google search for photos of decontamination efforts in Fukushima, and my curiosity was immediately piqued. Of course, that happens repeatedly during the course of a single day, and many detours, in fact, lead to nothing of significance. Having followed the detour (gotten off the known entity of the paved road and onto that dirt road leading to…?) , I’m usually left with mixed feelings of satisfaction (“Well, now at least I know where THAT road goes. “) and regret (” Oi, oi, but what a waste of time!”)  This time, however, I dug right in, feeling certain that I wouldn’t regret the extra twenty minutes. And I didn’t. The website on which the photo was posted described a project initiated by a company in Honolulu, Hawaii to introduce their relatively new (proven and tested in the last two years) miracle product to the radiation-ridden communities of Fukushima City.  Company representatives travelled to Japan this past summer and volunteered their time in “de-contaminating” the church/ nursery school,  donating both their manpower and large amounts of their product (called “DeconGel”) at an estimated value of $250,000.

I’ll get back to that story in more detail, I promise. But first, let me explain exactly why I was trawling through photos of decontamination efforts in Fukushima.  It began with an excellent article from the Economist, entitled “Hot Spots and Blind Spots” (October 8th). The article described the predicament of Iitate Village, located 45 kilometers Northwest of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant; technically outside of the 30 kilometer evacuation zone, the village was showered with cesium when the wind blew to the West after the hydrogen explosions, carrying radioactive particles farther than anyone had anticipated. Although the central government  recognized the area as a “hot spot”,  villagers were not

Iitate Village resident listens to the mayor explaining the evacuation plan. (AP/Kyodo)

immediately urged to evacuate. Months passed before the village was finally determined unsafe and it’s nearly all of its 6,ooo residents evacuated.  I remember watching several NHK news reports focusing on the villagers and their emotional struggle to accept the loss of not just their homes and farms, but of their community and the traditions that had kept it alive and given it meaning for generations. The Iitate villagers had no choice but to scatter, taking refuge with friends or family in nearby prefectures, or taking temporary refuge in evacuation shelters.

The story continues: as of September 30th, the central government has lifted its advisory warning for towns between  20 to 30 kilometer distance from the Fukushima plant, and a decontamination plan has been announced , to cover 2,419 square kilos of soil (an area larger than greater Tokyo).  Iitate village is also scheduled for decontamination, and efforts have begun to cleanse the land in anticipation of its inhabitants’ return. This was reported on the nightly news as positive proof of the progress being made in Tohoku and reduction of the level of radioactivity in general.  Decontamination measures are now in full swing, and including the removal of cesium-laden dead leaves

Fukushima City: decontamination by pressure hosing…..does it create still more problems?

from forests and cesium-laden sludge from drainpipes and gutters, the removal of the first 5 centimeters of topsoil from playgrounds and farmland, and “pressure-hosing” of houses in urban areas. This top-to-bottom hosing of houses is being taught in do-it-yourself workshops, and pressure hoses are flying off the shelves in Fukushima.  All good? Well, listen to what Kunihiro Yamada, Professor of Environmental Science at Kyoto Seika University has to say on the subject. “The water cleaners” he states, “wash surface dirt off but then that tainted water goes into sewers and can contaminate rivers, thereby affecting farm goods and seafood.  If people in highly populated areas were to begin using water cleaners, we may end up finding people forcing tainted water onto each other. ” Well, yes, that does seem to be the logical conclusion, and it’s a wonder that we need a PhD to tell us what public officials should have foreseen in the first place. Well, what about scraping off the top layer of soil then?  This has so far proved to be the most effective method in reducing the amount of cesium; unfortunately (and again, quite logically), winds blowing dead leaves from the wooded mountains of Iitate deposit their offerings squarely atop the newest layer of clean soil, thus re-contaminating the land, and undoing any previous work.  Is the only answer, then, to cut down entire forests?

You live in Japan? Better check where your shrooms were grown.

Heaven forbid.  Yet the forests in Fukushima are deadly repositories of radioactive cesium, from leaves clinging to the branches to the shiitake mushrooms, thriving and unharvested, which attach themselves to wet fallen tree limbs.

Still, the council chief of Iitate, Chohei Sato, hopes that families with young children will return to the village, declaring, “The revival of this town depends on the children returning.” As of this month, however, many families are choosing not to return to the former evacuation zone areas; as a mother, I certainly would not. Even the Economist correspondent, reporting from Iitae, admitted to feeling, “….strangely reluctant to inhale.”

Yesterday’s Mainichi Shinbun also featured an article that sparked my interest and explained the complications involved with decontamination in laymen’s terms. Entitled “True Radiation Contamination Still a Long Way Away”,  the article contained an interview with Professor Yamauchi, a radiation metrology specialist from Kobe University, who describes radioactive cesium as existing in three states: dissolved in water, loosely bonded to organic materials such as moss and leaves, and tightly bonded to rock ( think: roads, gutters, cobblestones….or roof tiles).  According to Yamauchi, cesium bonds so tightly to substances like roof tiles that power hosing has only a very limited effect in reducing the level of radiation of the house (and only serves to transfer those particles that are washed away into the water itself).  “To bring the roof’s radiation levels down,” he postulates, “there’s probably no other way than to replace the roof.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  

An unauthorized landfill site in Fukushima City.

  Now waaaaait a minute! Hold everything!                                        Here’s where my head started to spin, envisioning full-to-bursting bags of roof tiles, joining the bags of radioactive grass clippings, moss, soil, leaves…..and don’t forget the radioactive sludge!  And don’t forget the radioactive water, still building up in the tanks of the Fukushima Daiichi reactors, as well as in enormous “Mega-Floats” positioned ominously along the coastline (As a sidelight, a Japanese news station today released a short video of Fukushima workers spraying large amounts of that radioactive water from reactor tanks into nearby shrubbery, in an effort to prevent possible overflow from the tanks of reactors 5 and 6. TEPCO spokesmen stated the water was “not significantly contaminated”, and would affect no damage on the surrounding environment. But that’s another post in itself). Is it any wonder that Nobel Prize winning author Kenzaburo Oe compared the current situation of Japan to a science fiction story in his recent speech at the Sayonara Genpatsu demonstation rally in Tokyo? There must be a light shining somewhere in all this murky mess (I thought, as I trolled the internet, looking for photos of power hosing and such)……and then I stumbled onto the photo of the happy gang in front of the Baptist Church.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           The

Check out the miracle sticker-gel!

company from Honolulu is called CBI Polymers. They use polymer-based decontamination technology to deal with radiological, nuclear, and chemical threats. Now there’s a career your great-grandmother never could have imagined. Their product, DeconGel, is promoted as “green”, being water-soluble with a neutral PH level. It looks like blue slime. As I understood from the article accompanying the photo, DeconGel acts as a giant peelable sticker. Brushed on with a squeegie-like implement (that part looks fun), it dries solid, trapping radioactive particles as it hardens. Finally, peel the whole thing off (that looks like fun, too) and you’ve got a radioactive sticker to dispose of. Much more compact than a bag of roof tiles, I’d say. The company promises that nearly 100 percent of the radiation can be removed with this gel, and the Fukushima Nursery School geiger counter readings proved that. The headmistress, overjoyed, immediately let the children out onto the newly-cleaned playground for the first time since the quake, and a short video (you can see it on the above link) shows them frolicking about outside in their adorable school uniforms. You also get to see this awesome gel being applied, which is more interesting than you’d imagine. Oh, and as a final note, the Hawaiian-based company who invented the gel won an award from the US government this past summer for their work in Fukushima, and in Hungary as well. 

In the end, peelable stickers will not solve the whole problem. Think of the estimated cost of just that one project, and imagine the hundreds of other Nursery Schools in need of decontamination. And then wind will blow, water will flow, and previously decontaminated areas will be re-contaminated. But something like these stickers may in fact be a practical solution for the moment. When the Mainichi Shinbun article mentioned that Professor Yamada ( he who scoffed at the effectiveness of power hosing ) and his project team are currently working to develop “cloth-like adhesive stickers to affix to roofs”, I thought, “That’s been done! Get the guys from Honolulu back!  Or else hurry up and figure this out for yourselves!”  At least they’re on the right track.

Prof. Kodama: a hero who gets his hands dirty, too.

 In any case, what is painfully evident from the latest attempts at decontamination is that the efforts are too little, too late, and too short-sighted. Tokyo University  Radio Isotope Center’s  Professor Tatsuhiko Kodama (hero of the anti-nuclear movement since making an impassioned speech to the House of Representatives this summer ) has been doing weekend stints in the Fukushima town of Minami -Soma, teaching parents and local officials how to decontaminate homes and nursery schools. He recently stated to the Japan National Press Club, “The decontamination I’ve done is a type of emergency measure to protect children and pregnant women, and not true decontamination….Permanent decontamination requires the knowledge and technology of experts and corporations, and a massive amount of funds. It must not become an interest-driven public project.” In other words, do-it-yourself power hosing will not change much in the long run, and could lead to a false sense of security-just as dangerous as the invisible radiation particles themselves.  Your average Japanese citizen is not only skilled in scrubbing and scraping, but (I believe) takes some sort of moral satisfaction from the process. This time, however, citizens cannot  scrub away the damage that’s been done.  Japan must invest money, and work round the clock to discover new and creative solutions to the puzzle/nightmare of nuclear contamination.

Let me end with words from Professor Kodama’s book, entitled  The Truth about Internal Exposure: “We have contaminated our country’s earth, this irreplaceable inheritance from our ancestors that we had been charged with and must pass on to our children. However, if humans are the ones who contaminated it, then we humans should be able to clean it up again. ” I would not call Kodama Senseii pessimistic, yet his hope is tempered with a dose of reality. We “should be able” to clean it up (rather than “will be able”) leaves room for hope, but is still plenty sobering. That’s about as accurate an assessment as you’ll find these days. Good night, all.  If you’ve learned something from this post, please pass it on, and I thank you for doing so.                                                               

Pondering Peaches, and other Moral Dilemmas

“Do I dare to eat a peach?”  J. Alfred Prufrock was certainly anxious in the well-known T.S. Eliot poem, published in 1915.  It’s now

It's from Fukushima: do you dare to eat it?

2011, and people in Japan are asking the same question, in all seriousness and with no poetic implications. Take a look at this peach: it’s a typical Japanese fruit: perfectly sized (LARGE), perfectly round, perfectly colored, with no visible imperfections. The inside is so soft and juicy it cannot be “sliced”, as folks often slice smaller, firmer US-grown peaches. Peaches are a luxury fruit here, often sold singly (one peach costs more than a dollar), and wrapped individually in soft white netting. Our local supermarket sells them singly, in packs of two, packs of four, or a special gift box containing eight or ten. Don’t even think about throwing them randomly into a bushel basket and letting customers choose. They are only sold in season (late July and August), and my daughter waits patiently every year for their appearance. I will buy a single peach as soon as they hit the shelves, just for her.

This week’s Kanagawa Shinbun featured an article about the peach-growers of Hirano District, in Fukushima City.  The blogger EX-SKF translated the article, and it’s been picked up by several other foreigners living and writing in Japan. So here’s the gist of it : this year’s Hirano peaches are plentiful, delicious, and visual perfection, but they are not selling. Tourism in the district is nearly non-existant (down by 90% ) and orders for peaches have plummeted by 70%. Fukushima City is outside of the 20 kilometer evacuation zone, and the level of radiation in the peaches has been deemed safe according to the Food Sanitation Law that sets the standard here, but still the peaches are not selling. Japanese say, “mottainai!” or “what a waste!” And it does hurt to think about any food, ripe yet going uneaten.

The situation prompted teachers from Hirano Jr. High to take action, using the annual class trip as an excuse to promote Fukushima produce. On August 30th, seniors from the school peddled peaches in Yokohama’s Yamashita Koen ( a large and very popular park in the center of the city), encouraging passers-by to ignore the “baseless rumors” about irradiated food, and save the economy of Fukushima. Free peaches were distributed, along with pamphlets showing the smiling face of the governor of the prefecture declaring the peaches safe and delicious. Hmmmm.  As EX-SKF pointed out in his post, the level of radioactive cesium measured in the Hirano peaches was 64 bequerels per kilogram. Three hundred peaches distributed , each weighing approximately 200 grams, equals 60 kilos of peaches and 3,840 bequerels of cesium.  That’s well below the standard (500 bequerels per kilo) , but still ……what about that standard, eh?  Is ANY level of radioactive

Dr. Helen Caldicott: Would she eat the peach?

cesium either safe or acceptable in food?  Dr. Helen Caldicott would say emphatically “No!”, and I come closer and closer to her camp daily. Alright, I guess I’m squarely in her camp and entrenched by now.  EX-SKF’s closing comment on the situation was, “It sort of makes you lose hope in the next generation”, and many who read the post were in agreement.

But it’s a tough call. Some others who commented on the post were light-hearted or positive about the situation, supporting the students. “Of course, some people don’t trust the government inspection standards, which is understandable. But life is short, and peach season is even shorter.” wrote one, also noting the story of a woman who had nobly declined dessert the night the Titanic sunk (I am sure she was perfectly fine about that decision as the ship went down, but who knows?).  Though it was not mentioned in the blog comments, my guess is that students were not only influenced by teachers, but by family as well. How many graduating seniors had connections with the farming industry? We don’t know from the story, but it’s only too easy to imagine the sons and daughters of peach farmers, determined to do their part to save the family business. Because there’s always a human element (and especially when children are involved), I can’t treat stories like this lightly, or with cynicism.

In elementary school, Japanese children are required to take “Dotoku”, or “Morality” as a subject. Junior high and high school teachers need to be bringing all the issues–moral and otherwise– associated with the 3-11 disaster into the classroom, especially in Fukushima Prefecture. The Hirano teachers could have discussed the implications of  irradiated food and the effectiveness of safety standards and given each child the choice to distribute peaches or not……Ah, but in many cases, those kind of teachers have already been warned or fired. This we know, because they go public with their stories as soon as they’re out of the system. See? I warned you that there are no easy answers here, and delicacy as well as knowledge and conviction is definitely in order. Especially where children are involved. No matter how strongly I feel that the food we consume should be free from radiation ( along with the air that we breathe, the water we drink, and the list goes on… ), I would choose my words carefully if I were a teacher in Fukushima Prefecture. Children need to be aware of both the dangers of their polluted environment (and eventually, how it came to be polluted), and yet reassured that their friends and relatives who choose to farm in irradiated soil are not necessarily bad people. And it must be terribly unsettling for a child to see a parent depressed, strapped for cash, and yet unable to sell what appear to be plump, flawless peaches. Do they eat the peaches at home, and do the children secretly worry?  The Kanagawa Shinbun article only hinted at what I imagine to be a very stressful scenario in not only Fukushima, but in neighboring prefectures as well. No-one wants produce from the North these days.

Okay, so here’s the next moral dilemma.  Maybe you’d take a chance and, charmed by the sweet smile of the little fifteen-year-old in the cute school uniform, accept the peaches. But would you take a potentially irradiated person into your own home?  This question nagged at me (though I like to think that I certainly would if the occasion arose) this week in light of another article– an Associated Press exclusive that appeared in all sorts of news sites, complete with photos. Here’s the story: Fifty-three year old  Naoto Matsumura has continued to live within the evacuation zone since the 3-11 disaster, tending to the stray animals roaming the streets and cleaning and repairing the graves in the local cemetery of the now-ghost-town of Tomioka City. Here’s a video, just barely up on you tube, giving a brief introduction to the man and where he stands.

According to the Aug. 31st AP news article, Matsumura, after being refused admission to a shelter for evacuees (already full),  drove to a relative’s home and asked for shelter there. And was refused. By a member of his own family, concerned that he was (and he undoubtedly IS) contaminated by radiation. Since that day, he has stubbornly refused to budge, despite a lack of running water or electricity, and officials are apparently turning a blind eye to him. Of course, there may be a story behind the story here–there usually is–but even so!  Even if Matsumura-san were that horrible old unshaven sake-swilling uncle that showed up on his long-suffering relatives’ doorstep in the middle of the night, would you not take him in?  Or at least give him a shower and a cup of hot coffee?

I decided to take a survey and ask the friends and family that I live and work with on a daily basis (both Japanese and foreigners) what they’d do in a similar situation. Most Japanese families stay glued to the news every evening, and are both aware of and anxious about the invisible radioactive particles that cling to clothes, shoes, roofs, drainpipes-you name it.  How would they feel if the uncle from Tomioka came calling, asking for bed and board??  Some friends said, “Yes, absolutely! I would take him in”, insisting that loyalty to family and friends was worth any risk. Yet some said “Only if the family member could prove they were not irradiated.” ( My mother-in-law was unconcerned about the radiation, but terribly concerned that her house was too small.)  Those who answered that they would be hesitant to actually take in a family member from Fukushima said they would be more than willing to help them in other ways, such as finding an apartment or giving financial assistance.

The story of Matsumura-san is only one example of  the type of person who has chosen to stay in Fukushima, and his is an extreme example. Some folks here would call him a “ganko no ojisan”, or “grumpy old geezer”,  but others (including my father-in-law) see him as a hero. “Good for him!” they say approvingly. The video footage of desolation and dead animals is appalling, and it is comforting to know that someone is attempting to pick up the pieces and care for the living beings that are left. There are many other heros living not in, but in close proximity to

Students from Tomioka who have been evacuated to a new school. Teachers have not deserted them.

the 20 kilometer evacuation zone; we see them on NHK every night. This week my heart went out to nurses and teachers who have remained, saying that as long as there are patients to care for or children to teach they feel a moral responsibility to stay, even at the risk of their own health. Many of them are living separated from their own children, who have been sent off to live with relatives outside Fukushima.  Again, folks living abroad might feel that these people’s efforts would be better spent in persuading the patients and parents of schoolchildren to leave the prefecture and close the buildings down entirely.  Maybe so, but for now they are committed to help those who choose to stay.

In closing, I’d like to share a video I found, quite by accident, featuring a Buddhist monk living in Fukushima. Listen to what he has to say about why he’s still there, and see what he’s doing to bring light to his corner of the world. You’ll gain yet more insight into a complicated and delicate issue, and come away feeling renewed. Keep this man in your prayers–he’s doing good work. Oh, and he has children of his own, who are helping him with his project and training to work in the temple some day. I hope that day comes.

Cicadas, Anxiety, and Getting the Truth Out

Japanese cicadas come in many sizes and colors, each with its own distinctive “nakigoe” or cry. They are loved, not shunned, in this country, and children spend afternoons stalking, capturing, and observing these bug-eyed alien creatures. My particular favorite

Min-Min Zemi: up close and personal.

is called “Min-Min Zemi” because of his shrill nasal cry: “Miiiiin-min-min-min!”  The Min-Min never lets up during the month of August, and folks find the continual barrage of noise either annoying or reassuring (Semi are supposed to rule the streets in the month of August, and their absence would leave an uneasy silence, atypical of the season).  When I left Japan on vacation in early August, the Min-Min had not yet made their appearance and the weather was unseasonably rainy. Somehow, this made me anxious.  I returned from my trip to New England yesterday, and was relieved to hear the Min-Min out in full force in my neighborhood. It’s early evening now, and they’ve been at it since the morning, in desperate competition with birds and early autumn insects. The weather is still unseasonably rainy, with two typhoons headed this way, but at least the cicadas are doing what they should, when they should, and that keeps me grounded. My daughter agrees.

On the surface, Japan seems “back to normal” since March 11th, especially in Kanagawa Prefecture, which sustained very little damage at all from the quake and tsunami. Stores and restaurants are still dimly lit and uncomfortably warm (that’s the continuing energy conservation efforts), but folks are used to that by now, and almost able to disconnect from the disaster which necessitated the efforts in the first place. Little luxuries are creeping back into our lives, and we no longer feel so guilty about spending money on pleasure. But look a bit closer, and there’s an underlying level of anxiety that’s directly in proportion to one’s distance in kilometers from Fukushima. Let me give you a brief summary of some of the anxiety-inducing events of July and August, beginning with a video of a meeting that took place in Fukushima City on July 19th.

The meeting was arranged to give Fukushima citizens a chance to voice their concerns and communicate with representatives of the Central Government in Tokyo. What was conceived as a sensible idea went terribly wrong, as the representatives were unable to answer even the most basic questions, resorting to repetition of a prepared statement. Their emotionless demeanor and continual refusal to even consider the residents’ demands (immediate support for evacuation and testing of their children’s urine) provoked the residents to consternation, then anger, as they openly mocked the Tokyo beaurocrats. Take a look for yourself, and see what you think.

I find this video uncomfortably addicting, and I confess to having watched it several times. The incredulity of the residents as the officials fail to acknowledge their questions, the public humiliation of the officials as they flee the meeting in shame , and the desperation of the ordinary guy who follows them all the way to the elevator, pleading with them to accept the children’s urine samples are moving and disturbing scenes; it’s no wonder this video has been viewed and re-posted on blogs and websites all over the country. And for anyone who suspects that the Japanese government may be censoring unfavorable news or unflattering videos?  Well, if that’s the case, this should’ve been one of the first to go.

Professor Toshihiko Kodama

Shortly after the brief and futile meeting in Fukushima, another video appeared on you tube, almost immediately going viral with over 200,000 hits in just a few days. The video was of a speech made by Professor Tatsuhiko Kodama to the lower house Committee of Health, Labor, and Welfare on July 27th.  Kodama, the Director of Tokyo University’s Radioisotope Center, gave an impassioned speech, backed by facts and complete with scientific explanations.  His unguarded emotion and use of expression and gesture were unusual in Japanese public forum, but his words were what made him an overnight sensation. According to Kodama, the total amount of radiation released since the beginning of the Fukushima disaster is far greater than that released by  the atomic bomb at Hiroshima, and he is furious with the government for downplaying the danger faced by those close to the Daiichi Nuclear Plant, with babies and small children meriting the most concern. Describing himself as “shaking with anger”, he called on the central government to begin decontamination of the stricken area immediately. “It has been 160 days!” he states with disbelief.  I will post a brief clip of Kodama’s speech near the end of this post, so you can see for yourself both the passion and the thoroughness of his presentation. As a postscript, today’s paper reported that the amount of radioactive cesium 137 released by the Fukushima disaster is 168.5 times greater than that of the Hiroshima A-bomb ( Nuclear  and Industrial Safety Agency estimate).

The urgency of Kodama’s speech produced results–but not in the central government. While Prime Minister Kan’s cabinet continued doing business as usual, individuals were frantically buying up geiger counters, doing their own assessments of the level of radioactivity around their homes, and attempting to decontaminate their own yards. The ever-helpful, ever-positive national TV network NHK produced a “Do-It-Yourself Home Decontamination” program; I watched it myself, shortly before my trip to the states. In an hour-long program, the hosts demonstrated how to wash one’s entire house (top to bottom,  beginning with the roof) with a power hose, and then dig up any water-absorbing plant life (especially moss) , since most radiation is concentrated in rainwater. The top level of plants and grass are to be bagged and measured with a geiger counter, and then buried (in the deepest hole possible) in one’s own backyard, with the most-radioactive bags thrown in first, and the least- radioactive forming the top layer. Of course, the hosts explained, the backyard burial is only temporary, until the government decides exactly what to do with the steadily-increasing bags of radioactive waste products.

Hmmm. One week later, the Asahi Shinbun reported “Secret Dumping” of truckloads of radioactive soil and sludge in Fukushima. Citizens were eager to clean up their own neighborhoods, but not keen on using their yards as temporary landfill. The city had apparently dug an enormous trench in a remote area and was stealthily hauling truckloads of bags to a secret burial site. Not a pretty thing to contemplate, but since the central government has come up with no master plan, or even basic blueprint, to deal with the decontamination issue, local officials and individuals are no longer willing to sit back and wait. There’s a new sense of urgency, and motivation to act.

This was the state of affairs in Fukushima in late July. Residents within a 20 kilometer radius of the Daiichi plant were still unable to return home and living in shelters, nearby prefectures with relatives, or in hotels or Japanese-style inns. Those just outside that radius were frantically measuring their level of radiation and decontaminating the best the knew how (Professor Kodama was making weekend visits to Fukushima to assist them), and those in the outer regions of the prefecture continued to suffer from economic depression. Few visitors venture to the inns and attractions in Fukushima these days, and rice, vegetables, and beef still go unsold. Many women living in Fukushima have decided not to have children, and the workers at the Daiichi plant are already resigned to staying single the rest of their lives. See the movie “Black Rain”  if you’ve never done so ( Shohei Imamura, 1989),  and you’ll understand the stigma of living with (or being perceived as having) radiation sickness. Outside of Fukushima Prefecture, food products continued to test positive for high levels of radiation, and even green tea leaves in my own Kanagawa Prefecture were found to contain cesium. Doctors in Chiba Prefecture ( a full 200 kilometers from Fukushima Daiichi) were reporting increased nosebleeds, diarrhoea, and flu-like symptoms in children…..symptoms of radiation poisoning?  Maybe yes, maybe no, but the possibility was there. As Dr. Yuko Yanagisawa from the Funabashi Futawa Hospital in Chiba stated, “We are encountering new situations we cannot explain with the body of knowledge we have relied upon up until now.”

In my two week visit to New England, I encountered kind and concerned people who understood immediately the fear and anxiety engendered by nuclear disaster. I also encountered people  eager to lecture me on the safety of nuclear power, and how the danger was exaggerated. “What happened in Fukushima was really no big deal,” said one man. “The media just blew it all out of proportion.” Knowing what I knew (there was no way he’d ever convince ME of that statement) and seeing the stubborn set to his jaw, I decided to nod coolly and let sleeping dogs lie. In retrospect, it is true that the media gave dramatic and extensive coverage of the quake/tsunami/nuclear disaster during the first two weeks, yet there has been little follow-up on the aftermath: the death of cattle within the evacuation zone, the suicide of farmers, the break-up up families and communities, the emptying-out of schools, the  build-up of toxic waste, and the desperate pleas for information and support of those who have chosen to stay or are unable to evacuate. Not to mention the race-against-time to bring the reactors to a cold shutdown. And not to mention the fact that my cell phone still shows daily aftershocks in Fukushima–not a day goes by without at least one. And not to mention the percentage of Fukushima residents still struggling to deal with the death of family and friends as well as recurring nightmares left over from the quake and tsunami. What a pity that the media deserted Japan, and what a tragedy that a certain percentage of the population will go on believing that what happened was “no big deal”.

But maybe there are readers who are not yet convinced.  I have written of the anxiety of Fukushima residents and the hardships they’ve endured as a result of forced evacuations and lack of government support. But just how serious is the threat of radiation poisoning, and exactly how dangerous is the current situation at the crippled Daiichi power plant? It is difficult to get a perspective, as there is simply very little news coverage at all. Data is recorded and published, but the statistics often mean nothing to the average Japanese citizen. Experts rarely appear on NHK television to analyze and educate.  Many Japanese and foreigners in the know are turning to blogs and you tube videos to get information. Naturally, the language barrier is a source of frustration and confusion, since foreigners are unable to read the tweets and blogs of Japanese living and working in Fukushima, and Japanese are unable to comprehend the comments of physicists and nuclear experts speaking from abroad in English. There are a few razor-sharp bilingual minds working to translate you tube videos and speeches as they are made public, but far too few in my opinion. What’s happened and is happening in Fukushima is “senmon-teki no hanashi” (specialists’ language), and not easily translated in a way that’s both accurate and understandable. One blogger who’s been doing a fine job is known as EX-SKF; his blog ( sports a flashy photo of Ultra Man soaring through the sky, and his translation work (he did the English for Professor Kodama’s speech) is out of this world. Unfortunately, many of the most interesting videos are from news programs in the US or the UK; there are often no Japanese subtitles for most of them, and most folks here don’t know of their existence, or wouldn’t be able to make sense of the technical English. Experts who have worked within the nuclear power industry (Arne Gunderson of Fairewinds, in Vermont ) or who have been active for decades in  bringing nuclear power plant safety issues to light (Paul Gunter of Beyond Nuclear) are following the Fukushima developments from abroad, analyzing the data as it’s released, and coming to some grim and startling conclusions. Their assessments differ dramatically from what the Japanese public is being told  via government updates, yet are not in conflict with the bits and snippets that are revealed in private Japanese blogs, such as those of workers at the Fukushima plant.

I’d like to share with you just one of these videos, featuring a short clip of Professor Kodama, along with an interview with Paul Gunter, co- founder of the Clamshell Alliance anti-nuclear group; now working as a nuclear reactor specialist with Beyond Nuclear, he has been a critic of nuclear power for thirty-plus years. Gunter believes that accurate information about the Fukushima Daiichi is being deliberately withheld by the nuclear industry, and speculates about the current situation based on reports from the inside. Here’ s the video.

So…..that’s the situation as Paul sees it. Most Japanese have not seen this video and are not aware of its existence, though the Japanese blogger whose words influenced Gunter’s analysis was posting about it today on his site.  Prime Minister Kan’s resignation will be official tomorrow, and candidates for his position are already jostling for air space. Japanese citizens do not go to the polls to vote directly, so there’s no sense of excitement; it’s a passive rather than active event and folks feel resigned, rather than hopeful. Perhaps the new guy will be a true leader and visionary, but more likely not. In any event, many Japanese are attempting to search out information on their own, take action, and control their own fate. Without accurate information, they cannot hope to implement change. Good for the Fukushima citizens of the first video, refusing to sit back and accept their fate.  Please pass on their story to those who underestimate the seriousness of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, to those who (not hearing news to the contrary) might imagine that things are alright again over here, and of course to those who have ears to hear. For the sake of the Fukushima mothers whose children are already testing positive for cesium in their urine samples, please do keep the information and stories circulating. Thank you so very much. The cicadas salute you, and so do I!

A Tale of Two Farmers

This post is about farmers, and especially for farmers, whether in Japan or abroad. The story starts with my daughter’s eighteenth

"Is this straw safe?" (photo by Hiroshi Kawaii)

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.

"Do not be defeated by the nuclear accident. Do your best." (photo by Jun Kaneko)

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

Villages like Namie have become ghost towns.

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. 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.