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.”


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.

Foul Odors, Rising Water, and a Lethal Mega-Float

The Problem of Kesennuma (photo by Yoshinori Mizuno, Asahi Shinbun)

The rainy season has begun in Japan, with a vengeance. Kicked off by a typhoon from the Philippines that was downgraded to a nasty rainstorm, the temperature has plummeted, the skies have darkened, and Tohoku is a soggy mess of dead fish,  flooded roads, clogged drainpipes, and potential landslides.

Let’s start with the dead fish, which really have nothing to do with the rainy season, but just add to the misery of the situation. Yesterday’s Asahi Shinbun featured the coastal city of Kesennuma  (Miyagi prefecture, just above Fukushima) , where 20,000 tons of fish and fish by-products have been liberated from processing plants by the tsunami, and are now rotting in heaps about the city. According to the Asahi article, farmers can only work in their rice fields for thirty minute stretches due to the “unbearable stench”, and the “official in charge of dealing with foul odors” has his hands full.  You want that job?  How do you feel about maggots and flies? Are you prepared to investigate the refrigerators and freezers that lie about (in the most unexpected places) and remove what’s inside?  There were ninety fish processing facilities in the city; the factories were devastated, and their contents now lie scattered about an area so wide that removal and processing still continue after two full months. The fish, once collected, are piled up along the piers, loaded onto boats, and tossed back into the sea from whence they came. At least in Kesennuma.

Moving father south to Ishinomaki, rotting garbage of all varieties is causing headaches, sore throats, and burning eyes, according to local surveys. Workers in Ishinomaki, whose shores sunk significantly as a result of the tsunami,  are dependent on the tides. Many roads (including roads that children take on their daily school commute) are now flooded during high tide, and garbage collection can only be done when streets are accessible. Though workers are sloshing about doing their best, they have not been able to keep ahead of the piles of garbage accumulating daily as the clean-up of the city progresses. In addition to this, since the rain began three days ago, volunteers and Self Defense Forces have been frantically building temporary levees with sandbags, hoping to contain even more flooding; they have been only been partially successful. Ishinomaki seems to be in a particularly desperate situation, despite the constant stream of volunteers from across the nation who take a week or so (some have stayed since the onset ) to shovel through mud, pry apart broken buildings, prop up fallen grave markers, and assist private home-owners in repair and clean-up work. Basically, there is not enough space: no space to house volunteers; no space to dump garbage; no dry, safe, flat space to begin constructing pre-fab houses; no space to house those who have been left homeless. In short, the landscape has been effectively gobbled up by seawater and rubble.

Moving a bit farther south to the city of Sendai,  it’s raining there too– in record amounts. Last night’s NHK news showed workers wading through the streets, and attempting to unclog drainage ditches choked with debris (my notes say “disgusting glop”, but I cannot remember if that was the direct translation, or my own paraphrase. Either way, that’s what it looked like).  Evacuation advisories are being issued in vulnerable areas, and what looked (on the news) like netting and tarp was being thrown over hillsides to ensure against landslides.  My friend Sumiko, whose husband was in Sendai this week reporting on the clean-up progress for Newsweek Japan, says that the Self Defense Forces in the city are exhausted. The first death from overwork was reported last week, and none of the men have been home with their families since the disaster.

Farther south, we come to Fukushima, where it’s raining as well….right into nuclear reactors 1, 3, and 4, whose roofs were blown off by hydrogen explosions.  TEPCO reported a “dramatic increase” in the water level of the No. 1 reactor over the weekend.  Well, since

Reactor No. 1...Topless! (image released by TEPCO)

workers have been assiduously pumping water into the reactors for two months now in a frantic attempt to cool them down, one might think that the rainwater would speed things along, right?  Perhaps this may be so, but the issue of potential (fairly certain) leaks is what has folks worried. When the contaminated water in the basement of the reactors is lower than ground level, a one-way leak from ground water into the tanks may occur; what is more worrisome is if the level of the contaminated water rises above the level of ground water, leaking out into the surrounding soil and flowing into the ocean.  Many experts are certain that this is already happening. In any case, as Asahi Shinbun reporter Sugimoto Takashi writes, “TEPCO has not yet decided how to deal with the issue. However, it has secured hoses to transfer contaminated water from the basements of the No. 2 and No. 3 turbine buildings. A large, floating container, dubbed a ‘mega-float’, is in place offshore to hold the contaminated water.”  So now there are ‘mega-blocks’ of radioactive slag (read “poop”),  ‘mega-boxes’ of radioactive playground sand, and a ‘mega-float’ to hold radioactive water…..and a growing “dead zone” outside the plant’s perimeter that is spreading fast. That brings us to the people who once lived in that zone, and what the outlook for their future might be.

For the present, they are scattered far and wide across Japan. I recently learned that there are a number of Fukushima families living in my own city of Hadano. Though it boasts a huge population, Hadano is officially considered “the country”, and is known for its pure mountain water and popular hiking courses.  A new camping facility has just been finished several years ago, complete with lovely cabins furnished with spacious kitchens and tatami sleeping rooms. Really, I hardly consider that camping at all, but since the cabins are on a mountain in the woods, that fits the Japanese definition, I guess. Anyway, the cabins are now home to the Fukushima families, free of charge, for a short-term stay (hopefully until July, so children can finish up their first semester of school ).  There are Fukushima children in every grade in Hadano, from elementary through Jr. High, and I hear that they’re fitting in just fine.

To my surprise, today’s Asahi Shinbun says there are also Fukushima families in the heart of Tokyo, staying en masse at the Grand Prince Hotel in Akasaka! “Luxury Hotel Home to Refugees” read the headline, with a photo of a charming toddler seated near the window overlooking the Tokyo skyline, surrounded by bags and bags of belongings. Eight hundred refugees from the towns of Iwaki, Minami-Soma, and Futaba are now living in the hotel, which was scheduled to close at the end of March, but decided to remain open with the aid of the Tokyo metropolitan government as a refuge for evacuees. The government is currently paying for meals and utilities, and keeping the hotel open until the end of June.  Although children won’t be able to finish up the school semester (summer vacation begins in mid-July), the hotel stay provides a safe haven and a chance for parents to catch their breath before considering their next move. Most evacuees have mixed feelings about being country families in the heart of fashionable Tokyo; I understand this completely, always fretting that I don’t have the right clothes to wear on the rare occasions when I take the train into the city. Older evacuees feel the irony and frustration of the situation. Hideo Kurosawa, a sixty-eight year old town official from Tomioka, looks out at the lights of Tokyo each night, knowing that, “The neon lights of the metropolis were made possible by the electricity from the nuclear plant.”

The families in Hadano and Akasaka are the lucky ones, at least as far as creature comforts. But they are living a long distance from their former communities, and far from friends and family. Those who remained closer to home face harsher living conditions, but at least retain the comfort of community ties. Though life in a school gymnasium for weeks on end  requires stamina and patience, old folks in particular find reassurance in being able to visit with neighbors, exchange news, and have company at mealtimes.  All of the evacuees–whether far or near–are living with uncertainty, and weighing their options.  As yet, those options are unclear, as the jury is still out on whether they will in fact be able to return home, and if so, how soon that might be.  Bloomberg News reported today that specialists are estimating that restoration of the contaminated land to “livability” could be achieved within three years, but that the government must move fast to begin the process if it hopes to be successful. This involves “cleaning” the soil, or even replacing it. And of course, everything depends on the successful control and shut-down of the power plant itself, which is the more immediate crisis.

Meanwhile, tsunami debris is on its way to Hawaii. US researchers predict some bizarre pieces of Japan will wash ashore on the North American west coast within three years, hitting Hawaii twice.  The International Pacific Research Center of the University of Hawaii at Manoa reports that a  “..massive and concentrated arrival of debris,” including bits of buildings, cars, ships, and other tsunami trash will wreck havoc with the environment and harm the wildlife.  There could be potential lawsuits, even, that Japan should prepare for!

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister faces a vote of no-confidence on Thursday. Some say he’ll be ousted, and some say he’ll weather the crisis. Still others (my husband included) say his facial color is terrible, and he must be suffering from extremely poor health. Personally, I don’t think any Japanese politicians look either healthy or pleasing to the eye, but that’s another story. I do hope we do not change Prime Ministers in mid-stream, and I do hope that Kan does not have a bleeding ulcer, though it would not be surprising.

That’s the news for this week; I wish it were not quite so dark, but perhaps it’s the rainy season that’s coloring my perspective as well. There have been positive developments and bright patches, so I will attempt to focus on the good as well as the bad in my next post. I am off to Las Vegas next week for a wedding, so it may be some time before I get back on track….but I’ll be back for sure, as long as the story continues to unfold. Good night.

“Will You Raise Your Voice?”

“Please protect us!”  (photo by Tsuno Yoshikazu, Agence France-presse-Getty Images)

“This is not like Libya, government forces will not shoot you down with guns. You will also not become a missing person, taken away somewhere never to return, like in North Korea. Will you raise your voice? Or will you just cry yourself to sleep? ”  ….This is a translation of the blog of Kouno Taro, a member of the government opposition party, published in this week’s popular TIME OUT TOKYO magazine. The accompanying article berates the Japanese people for accepting fuzzy explanations, compromises, and downright untruths from the government whose plans, Kouno says, are “…bound by the aims of protecting the organization of TEPCO, the shareholders, the banks who financed the company and those holding bonds, rather than the public.”  These are strong words, and there is truth to his claim, which was also backed up by a visitor from America. The visitor, a scholar fluent in Japanese, had come to visit evacuation centers in Fukushima. He looked around at the old folks sitting calmly in their impeccably neat sleeping spaces, shook hands and bowed with those who lined up to greet him, and declared to television cameras later, “Nihonjin was shikkari shisugite iru. ”  ( loosely translated, “The Japanese people are too self-reliant.” )  “Shikkari shite iru” is one of those hard-to-translate phrases, which can mean “firm, tight, reliable” or  “a person of good, stable character”.   The American scholar went on to lament that Japanese are so used to being self-reliant and enduring without complaint that they are easily taken advantage of by both the government and TEPCO.

Well, this week has been marked by many interesting stories.  Some stories are in line with the “shikkari shisugite iru” idea: examples of individuals or groups moving to protect themselves and carry on in the absence of  guidance from or action by government officials. Yet other stories hint that ordinary Japanese are too tired, too mentally and emotionally exhausted, unwilling and (in some cases) unable to “carry on” taking care of themselves. These folks are still a minority, but their voices are beginning to be heard on NHK broadcasts, and their faces seen in the Asahi Shinbun.

First, let’s look at this week’s inspiring stories, beginning with  GEEZERS HOPE TO SAVE THE DAY!!!  ( The actual headline was, “A Nuclear Offer from the Aged”, which was much less low key ) , Nakai Daisuke’s article from the Asahi Shinbun, reprinted in the International Herald Tribune.  A close reading of the article brought a stab of surprise and pain: over one hundred and sixty men over the age of sixty have volunteered to step in and assist in the clean-up and shut-down process at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. The number of  young people willing to take on the job has been steadily decreasing, and current workers can only work for short periods of time because of the risk of over-exposure to radiation. “We’re the perfect solution!” say the group of geezers, whom one politician has dubbed “The Suicide Squad” ( The group members refer to themselves as “The Skilled Veterans Corps”) . The Skilled Veterans  point out that they are near-death anyway, so can work for extended periods of time and get the job done in a more consistent fashion.  Their leader, Yamada Yasuteru, is seventy-two- a cancer survivor who describes himself as healthy and ready to work. “I want to do my part so that a negative legacy will not be left for future generations,” he states.  I love that man. Despite their gung-ho attitude, and years of experience working  in a variety of technical jobs (Yamada-san’s background includes both waste disposal and plant construction), both the government and top TEPCO officials have stated that they do not plan on using the Skilled Veterans Corps, since ,”…there is no immediate need” for such a suicide corps. How the shut-down and clean-up will be accomplished within eight months (the target time frame, which has already been revised and extended once) without a steady stream of willing workers is still up in the air.

Here’s another brief mentions of folks “taking care of themselves” where the government has been unwilling or unable to step in: families in Fukushima Prefecture whose towns lie outside the evacuation zone but are still plagued by  high radiation levels, have repeatedly asked government officials for advice. Getting very little of that, they are taking matters into their own hands, shovelling away layers of topsoil from their children’s school playgrounds (teachers and parents working together), and declaring the grounds “unsafe”.  Children continue to stay inside at recess, windows are closed (no problem now, but just WAIT till the heat really sets in.  Public schools in Japan are not air conditioned, and summer vacation does not start until mid-July!) , and deciding for themselves to err on the safe side….and who can blame them?

In the Kanagawa and Tokyo areas, folks are continuing to be “shikkari” about saving energy. While the government and TEPCO battle to finance the Fukushima plant shut-down , pay compensation to the victims, and prepare for a swelteringly hot summer with only limited power, individuals are carrying on calmly and positively. Dark public spaces have become the new normal (stiflingly hot trains are still difficult to adjust to), and my friends say cheerfully, “Well, this station was really too bright before, wasn’t it?”  In  a recent NHK on-the-street interview , a reporter was encouraged to find many people willing to speak out on National TV (this is a country where people are not comfortable behind a mike, and run from, rather than welcome their chance for ten minutes of fame), especially about the energy crisis. Young people declared their consciousness raised, and vowed not to take a lifestyle of plenty for granted.  Although many dreaded the advent of the summer heat, they vowed to refrain from using air conditioners, and spoke of the conservation effort (“setsu-den”) as a way of reaffirming their existence as members of the post-quake society.  I think of it that way myself , yet wonder how vigilant I’ll be able to be when the temperature begins to soar in June and July…

Lastly, let’s switch from the topic of self-reliance to that of protest and the exposure of dirty deeds.  Caught up in a tangle of frightening and confusing circumstances, ordinary citizens in Tohoku–particularly Fukushima Prefecture-are often unsure of who to lash out at, and how to make their voices heard. Though Japan in technically a democracy, it is rare for individuals to be able to make their voices heard above the noisy din of bureaucratic debates and squabbles. Lately, families in Fukushima City ( a huge area to the north of the prefecture which is technically outside of the evacuation zone, but marked by “hot spots” of alarmingly high radiation levels) have been outraged by a  government declaration of “safe radiation doses” for children. The limit set is shockingly high, and “…equal to the international standard for adult nuclear power plant workers,” according to Tabuchi Hiroko’s article in today’s International Herald Tribune.

In April, an advisor to Prime Minister Kan issued his prompt resignation after the standard was announced, simply stating that he would not allow his own children to be exposed to those levels.  And Fukushima parents agree: they are not just uneasy, but confused and angry. Unable to get consistent information on radiation levels on a daily basis, they have no information at all on the long-term effects of  the “safe dose” of radiation they are receiving; in addition, they feel torn between wanting to believe local businessmen (who urge them to continue buying Fukushima products to save the economy), and their own instincts (which urge them, naturally, to be over-cautious).  Since there is only a limited understanding even among scholars of the affects of low doses of radiation over an extended period of time, there are no set guidelines to rely on other than the government’s declaration.

Many families in Fukushima City have already fled voluntarily, and those who remain (it is a huge city, and would be extremely difficult to evacuate) have been protesting the government’s radiation standard for children vigorously. On Monday, parents from  Fukushima travelled to Tokyo to protest outside the Japanese Education Ministry. The building itself is no beauty, but it’s in a very nice, very posh part of the city, close to the American Embassy. It must have been quite a sight, since reporter Tabuchi described the scene as “rowdy”, which is not usual at all. Unsurprisingly, they were rebuffed, but at least they made the papers and the nightly news.  On Wednesday, more parents took their complaints to the local school board, dispensing with civilities and shouting their questions and accusations angrily, asking if entire school buildings should not be decontaminated from top to bottom, and demanding immediate attention and action for the sake of their children. Local officials, caught between a rock and a hard place, pleaded for understanding and promised to do all they could.

Meanwhile, new exposures of dirty deeds at TEPCO continue to make the evening news. Recently,  more young workers involved with the clean-up at the plant have spoken out publicly about lax safety measures and other worrying situations. Many claim to have been “tricked” into working at the plant in the first place, being told at job placement agencies that they would be doing “construction work”, or other such vague descriptions. Those who stayed on to work at the plant despite the initial shock report being treated as “disposable items” by a company more concerned with the plant than with the safety of the men working to prevent further wide-spread contamination and  destruction. Working without dosimeters, ill-fitting masks whose filters slip off when bumped (!) ,warped doors which do not close properly to seal contaminated areas, and only a fifth of the workers receiving internal radiation checks….these are a few of the fears they voiced, and their fears were heard nation-wide. It is already old news now that the situation at Fukushima is far more serious that was first intimated  (it WAS a meltdown after all), and that TEPCOs defense of  “an unimaginable natural disaster” ( they blamed the unforseen height of the tsunami wave) does not hold. New evidence shows that the worst damage was done by the quake itself rather than the tsunami, and was therefore within the realm of imagination. Design flaws within the plant itself have been revealed, and an initial delay in making crucial decisions shortly after the quake caused the situation to escalate.  The situation in Fukushima has been far from “transparent”, and plant workers have every right to fear for their futures, and to publicly doubt whether they should trust their employers.

I’d like to close with the words of Yabuki Shin, who wrote in a recent issue of TOKYO TIME OUT,  “In the wake of the great earthquake, the Japanese people’s spirit of helping others, and the evacuees who lined up in such an orderly manner to receive supplies, were praised worldwide. But if we remain silent about the present situation….we’re likely to become an international laughing stock, known only as the docile Japanese. People of Japan, it’s time to take a stand.”  Enough said, and very well said.  We’ll see what new developments the next week brings.

Jaw-Dropping News, and Praise for Mickey

Stranded visitors at  Tokyo Disneyland

When Wednesday’s International Herald Tribune front page declared, “Disaster Overturns Japan’s Nuclear Program!” , my jaw dropped in wonder and surprise. I had not expected so much so fast, especially when the news thus far had been couched in polite and indefinite terminology. The English language newspapers had earlier reported that Prime Minister Naoto Kan had “requested” that operations be suspended at the Hamaoka Nuclear Power Plant (in Shizuoka prefecture, where experts predict a 90 percent chance of a major quake of around magnitude 8 within the next thirty years) , and that the Chubu Electric Power Company was “considering” the request. Yet in spite of the verb choice “requested” rather than “ordered”, news reports seemed to take Kan’s words seriously, and were giving them a lot of press attention. Then….low and behold, the Wednesday headline, and an announcement that the Chubu Electric Power Company (known as CEPCO) had “agreed” to Kan’s “request” , and would begin preparations to decommission two reactors and suspend operations at the remaining three, despite an anticipated deficit between supply and demand during the summer months. “Although it is a request, it carries the weight close to an order,” was the English translation of a senior official at CEPCO, who probably had more to say, but restrained himself admirably.

Follow-up articles added more details, describing the CEPCO officials as “scratching their heads and rolling their eyes” as they reluctantly considered Kan’s “request with the weight close to an order”.  After all,  the Prime Minister and his predecessors had been in their camp for decades, and despite the horrific damages (the extent of which will not be known in full for years to come), apparently CEPCO assumed that the Hamaoka plant would continue to retain its “protected status” for years to come. As Martin Fackler of the Asahi Shinbun reports, ” While the plant has faced years of lawsuits seeking its suspension because of its precarious location, compliant courts have consistently ruled in the industry’s favor. ”  Katsuhiko Ishibashi, a seismologist and nuclear safety expert at Kobe University, recently stated that nuclear power plants have long been treated as  “sacred territory”, supported and protected by the cooperative efforts of the government, the industry itself, and its regulators. Prime Minister Kan’s “abrupt” (in CEPCO officials’ words) request came as a slap in the face to an industry which has long been “entrenched and coddled” ( Martin Fackler’s words) by the government up until the very day of the quake.

And then, as CEPCO officials had feared, came the Domino Effect: yesterday’s paper (only three days later) reported that “Municipalities in Japan that are home to nuclear power plants are now so nervous about potential accidents that 42 of the 54 reactors in the country could be offline during the peak electricity demand period this sumer.” (Asahi Shinbun).  Forty-two out of fifty-four?!  And the process is beginning already: Fukui prefecture, with 13 nuclear plants, has already suspended operations at six while they are under inspection, and will halt three others in July.  Fourteen reactors across the country have been shut down for inspections this week, with six more scheduled for inspection in July; fifteen plants in the Tohoku area have already been shut down due to damages from the quake and tsunami. Local government officials from North to South, East to West,  are now expressing concerns about the safety of the nuclear power plants that they have lived in close proximity to for decades; the Prime Minister’s sudden decision to take a stand against the Hamaoka plant has been the catalyst for a chain reaction that has all the possibilities for a revolutionary new beginning.

It is important to note that the concept of a new beginning is only a “possibility” at present.  Japan’s eggs have all been in one basket up until this point, and as Micheal Austin, director of Japan studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington stated in Wednesday’s Herald Tribune, “The old way of doing things has broken down, but there is not yet a new way to take its place.” Japan is now universally wary of nuclear power, and has taken to first steps toward changing its energy policy, but the process of investigating, financing, and implementing a new major policy has not yet begun. Prime Minister Kan intends to “start from scratch”, which is both exciting and and terrifying (as is anything which carries the potential of large-scale failure).  The excitement is country-wide, as families follow the NHK nightly news , which has been extended since the quake, to focus specifically on the challenges faced by the Tohoku region.  This week’s special programming featured in-depth presentations of different sources of alternative energy: Thursday featured wind power in Denmark, and Friday featured geo-thermal power in New Zealand. I was astonished to learn that there is not a single nuclear reactor in the entire country of New Zealand, and also that Japan’s geo-thermal resources are ranked third in the world, yet are almost completely untapped!  Anti-nuclear protesters have been marching in Tokyo for the past two weekends (I must check Twitter, and see if they’re about today), and people are talking about solar panels and investigating the power of volcanic hot springs. Most exciting of all, while the government is strapped financially and TEPCO’s resources are being stretched to the breaking point, the wealthy entrepeneurs of Japan are stepping up to bat!  Whew!  About time!  Masayoshi Sun ( founder of Softbank, and officially the richest man in the country) has promised to donate $12 million to start a research foundation for renewable energy, stating that continued reliance on nuclear power would be, “…a sin against out children, grandchildren, and future generations.” Strong words,  but the country is ready to hear them. As Nassrine Azimi wrote in Wednesday’s NY Times editorial, “The Fukushima disaster has become an existential moment for Japan. None of its energy options are easy-but at least the country will face the challenge with the gravity it deserves.”

Lastly, a brief update on the situation in Fukushima, and a story from Tokyo’s Disneyland, which the government would do well to use as a model for future disaster preparedness programs.

The news this week from Fukushima prefecture was bleaker than ever. Residents from Kawauchi village (within the 20 kilometer radius of the evacuation zone) were allowed to return home for a two hour visit on Tuesday, leading to frustration and sadness, rather than relief.  Abandoned cows running wild had broken into sheds and caused havoc, household pets were dead, and residents- dressed in bulky white radiation protective gear equipped with walkie-talkies and dosimeters- scrambled to clean their houses, and to find items of clothing and photo albums before the time limit ran out and the bus left to return to the shelter where they have been setting up housekeeping.

The timeline for the shutdown of the reactors at Fukushima is being revised, after a chilling discovery that spent fuel rods have melted down and apparently burned a hole in the bottom of the Number One reactor, causing unknown amounts of radioactive water to leak…presumably into the ocean, though TEPCO claims to be “unclear” about where the water is actually going. It is likely that there are leaks in two other reactors as well, though the high radiation level makes it difficult for workers to check the site and make a proper assessment.

Students in the Shoyo Middle School, in Date City ( 60 kilometers northwest of the crippled power plant) attend class wearing masks, caps, and long sleeve shirts; a recent measure of the school’s radiation level revealed that “their exposure to radiation is on pace to equal annual limits for workers in the nuclear power industry” (Bloomberg News, Thursday).  Female faculty and students are banned from wearing skirts due to “radiation concerns”.  Elementary and Nursery Schools in Date are continuing to scrape off the top level of soil on their playgrounds, and covering it temporarily with plastic sheets.

TEPCO has unveiled a plan to eventually cover the entire crippled power plant with polyester sheeting, creating a giant “canopy” supported by steel beams to prevent further leakage of radiation. It will be an eyesore, and a shameful sight.

But now, let’s move South, to Tokyo’s Disneyland (which is actually located in Chiba prefecture, the southernmost coastal area to sustain major damage from the quake and tsunami).  In the days following March 11th, NHK viewers were horrified at the videos broadcast from the the wildly popular theme park, which showed the sidewalks cracking open and great yawning gulfs appearing before the eyes of terrified families. As they backed away in horror, water began gushing up through the cracks, and within hours, much of the park was flooded.  But that’s not the real story…

The real story is how the Disney staff responded to the disaster, and it’s one worth telling. According to my friend Junko (she is in the know about theme parks), Disney holds rotating disaster preparations drills every two days,  so that every area of the vast grounds is constantly reminded to stay alert and keep in practice.  Disney has always taken the potential for natural disaster seriously, and felt a deep responsibility toward its staggeringly high number of visitors; they proved their capability and efficiency on March 11th, and those who happened to be in Mickey’s Kingdom on that day will not forget the swift response and kindness of the Disney staff.

One of my English students, a fourth grader named Mayu, happened to be there. It was a school day, but her parents had taken her out of class for a day trip that was a family celebration for her older sister who had just gotten into the high school of her choice. When the quake hit, of course the smallest children panicked, and screams and cries rang out through the park as people struggled to keep their balance and take in what was happening.  Disney staff in the stores and shops remained calm, and rushed to comfort children as they took cover;  as the trembling subsided,  staff began emptying the shelves of stuffed animals and trinkets to help calm howling babies and mothers with jangled nerves. It had begun to rain, and raincoats were immediately given out free of charge to children. When the supply ran out, Hello Kitty gift bags were used, with holes cut out for the arms.  Visitors (over 30,000 at Disney Sea) were then rounded up into a safe, dry, central area, given food and “disposable heaters” to stay warm, and encouraged to remain within the park for their own safety. Near midnight, when trains began running again, visitors were allowed to leave, but many spent the night camped out on the grounds. Disney attendants cooked and served breakfast for them the next morning.  I asked Mayu, “Did you sleep at Disneyland? Did you stay at a hotel?”, but she wasn’t able to say, and I didn’t want to press the issue. “Well…it was like a hotel…” she said hesitantly, but did not want to talk further. The following day, Disney opened up its hotels for free, as did other area resorts, and kept them open that week for the use of local residents as well.  In the end, the Disney complex was able to report no deaths or significant injuries, and to know that years of disaster preparation training had paid off.  They prepared for the absolute worst, met disaster cooly and efficiently, and provided a model for the rest of the nation.  Mayu does not want to talk about her experience, and probably will not for some time.  I think of the fear she must have experienced, and breathe a sigh of relief that she and her family made it back to Hadano safe and sound.  Though I’ve never been a big Disney fan, and have not once visited Disneyland in all my years here, I may now be one of Mickey’s biggest fans. Nice going, Disney.

Empty hospitals, Stylish goods, Cosplayers protest, and More!

Empty hospitals??  That’s a good thing, right?  Not in Fukushima, it seems. Last night’s NHK news broadcast showed an elderly woman, critically ill and already unconscious, being turned away from the hospital in her own neighborhood. Although the  Minamisoma hospital  had  empty beds aplenty, the reason was a new government regulation preventing new patients from being admitted. The woman (only a brief glimpse of bare feet sticking out from a sheet) was rushed to a hospital in a nearby city, hopefully in time, as TV viewers wondered what on earth was happening.

The situation, as it turns out, is this: Minamisoma and other cities now prevented from admitting new patients are within the “Emergency Preparedness Zone”. This is the grey area just outside of the evacuation zone, where radiation levels register higher than normal, but not yet high enough to warrant a full-scale evacuation.  All residents within this zone must be prepared to evacuate at the drop of a hat should further troubles develop at the Fukushima Plant, and ill patients cannot be rushed out of the city without proper care and preparations. Thus the new regulation: medications may be distributed and health consultations are allowed, but no patient may actually be admitted for fear of an evacuation that may or may not occur. Naturally, hospitals in neighboring cities are now flooded with elderly patients (many unhappy to be far from their own neighborhoods), and doctors are up in arms, calling this a “humanitarian issue”. The regulation is particularly distressing to residents since it came from the central

Prepare for disaster with Hello Kitty!

government, without consultation with local officials or community members. City officials are justifiably frustrated and distressed, calling for greater co-operation between the central government and individual prefectures, and urging the Prime Minister and his officials to use “imagination and compassion” in their decision-making.

Meanwhile, back in Tokyo….people are preparing for the next big quake. Because it’s Tokyo, they are doing so with style. A blog called “Tokyo Trends” reports that Hello Kitty silver emergency bags (seen in the above photo) are now sold out in on-line shops. At 10,000 yen per bag (approximately a hundred dollars), that seems astonishing. The contents consist of a handkerchief, a “pouch”, a small blanket, an earthquake hood, an alarm buzzer, and the backpack itself. Considering that all of these items are easily found in the home of any elementary school student, I was amazed to know that anyone would pay that amount of money simply to have the Hello Kitty logo on their matching earthquake goods. Not to mention the impracticality of the contents!  No flashlight? No tinned biscuits? Not even a box of Hello Kitty band-aids? Oooo…kay….Let’s move on to the next item: the answer to unfashionable earthquake hoods and helmets.

The traditional earthquake hood looks rather like a couch cushion tied onto the head. In fact, they do double-duty as chair cushions in elementary school (where space is at a premium), as they can be easily removed and thrown onto the head in a matter of seconds. During the second world war, even adults wore these for safety, but these days it’s mostly children. Helmets are for adults. Yes, but who in the fashion-conscious heart of Tokyo wants to be seen in a helmet? Apparently, a Danish company called Yakkay has found the answer: a helmet, concealed by a dapper little overhat that somehow clips on and is interchangeable. “Japan Pulse” claims these hats are not only worn by cyclists in the city, but by train commuters as well!  Apparently not out my way, but I will be on the lookout from here on in.

And now for the protest!  It is nine o clock in the evening here, and my Twitter feed says that thousands marched through the streets of Tokyo today, protesting Japan’s continuing reliance on nuclear power. This was confirmed by the e-publication “Tokyo Times”, and I expect to see something in tomorrow’s Asahi Shinbun pages. Maybe. The tweets were unclear as to exactly how many people, but there was agreement that it was in the thousands….which is impressive to me, since I’ve never seen crowds that large here apart from fireworks festivals, and have never witnessed a single protest in twelve years. No farmers from Fukushima this time, and no cows, but plenty of “cosplayers” (young people dressed as their favorite Anime characters), chanting, “Genpatsu, yamerou!”, or “Stop Nuclear Power Plants!!” Someone had tweeted, “Old boy at the back annoying the cops,” so I guess there were older folks, too, and apparently plenty of police. Adept at organization, the police neatly divided the protesters into groups, watched for any signs of unruliness (there were none), and that was that. Everyone went home, and there was nothing more to tweet about.  Still, that’s pretty exciting stuff for Tokyo.

And now….back again to Fukushima Prefecture and the troubled reactors. Yesterday’s Asahi Shinbun reported that fewer workers are willing to brave the radiation risk inside the plant, and that former workers (who had worked under dangerous conditions shortly after the disaster on the 11th) are refusing to return to their jobs. According to the article, “..many workers have been begged by their families not to work at the plant again,” and no wonder. The “Fukushima 50”, who were lauded both at home and abroad, are probably among those who refuse to return, and who can blame them? They have paid their dues. As of this posting, there are 1,312 workers at the plant, most employed by sub-contractors hired by TEPCO. The reactors, they say, are still filled with “radioactive rubble” caused by hydrogen explosions, and daily exposure to excessive radiation is unavoidable. Suffering from hyperventilation and abnormal heartbeats caused by living with stress and fear on a daily basis, they are urged by colleagues to “keep quiet” within the earshot of their TEPCO employers. TEPCO officials, attempting to salvage the remains of their bedraggled reputations, are taking measures to improve the workers’  living environments by constructing temporary dorms and showers. I had to read that twice, as you probably did, too. No dorms or showers until this point??……

Other news, in a nutshell: operations at the Hamaoka Nuclear Plant (one of the topics of my last post) have been halted by the central government!  Suddenly and completely, and I was truly surprised, given the company’s determination to not only continue operations, but to re-start a reactor which had been closed for inspections. The shut-down is only temporary, to give the company time to construct a massive breakwater and take long-term precautions against future disasters, but still it’s a small victory, and a bit of breathing space.

The Prime Minister has also taken a firm stance against TEPCO, stating that full responsibility for clean-up and compensation rests with the company, rather than the government, and professing “no sympathy” for the universally reviled TEPCO officials.  TEPCO, while promising to do its utmost, still begs for mercy, crying, “Don’t break us!” In reality, the government will end up footing part of the bill, though how much, and by what means remains to be seen. In the meantime, farmers from Fukushima go uncompensated, and their future remains uncertain.

In a rather alarming short article found in the Tokyo Times, I learned that Red Cross Japan has been sitting on a huge amount of aid money, earmarked as “compensation” for Tohoku residents. I have been fund-raising for Red Cross since the aftermath of the quake, and urging others to do so as well, so THAT news gave me a jolt. In their defense, Red Cross officials say that distributing the money fairly is a delicate process, and that many factors (including the results of searches for lost family members) have prevented them from getting the money out in a timely fashion. The truth of that can hardly be denied, and I am trusting that the money will find its way to the victims as soon as possible.

And so, Japan’s Golden Week comes to an end tomorrow. Many young people spent the holidays in Ishinomaki or Kesennuma, paying a good sum of money to be allowed to help with the clean-up and re-construction, and living like shelter residents themselves for a few days. Others travelled and enjoyed life as usual, in spite of dire news predictions that the average citizen would spend Golden Week at home, behaving frugally. I chose to stay at home, behaving semi-frugally, and taking one day trip to the Hakone mountains. Expecting few other tourists, my family and I were unprepared to do battle with the crowds squeezed onto the train platforms! We had planned to meet friends on the Hakone-Yumoto platform and board the train together, but that proved impossible, since we were unable to see each other or move in any direction but toward the train doors. We ended up on the same train, but in different cars, and finally met up at our destination (which was worth the stress of the train ride).  It will be some time before families in Tohoku are able to travel for pleasure, and I must remember to appreciate my own good fortune. And  I will continue to blog in the evenings. The news is chock-full of drama–no end in sight– and it seems important to reach out and grab at stories, in an effort to make sense of them and to make sure that they get told at least once again before life moves on. Again, I thank you for reading those same stories and for keeping Japan in your thoughts and prayers.