Voices from Fukushima

Voices from Fukushima 
Dr.John Clammer (United Nations University, Professor )

Now, in later October 2012 as the first signs of winter begin to appear in Eastern Japan, and a little after a year and a half since the great earthquake, tsunami and consequent meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant, memories, and the sense of urgency and needed reforms that the crisis provoked, are slowly fading. Somehow with the passage of time it is assumed that somehow the problems must have got better, those displaced resettled, and life will have returned to something resembling “normal”. But a visit to the stricken area, a visit that I have recently made myself, soon dispels this cosy notion, a notion that allows the rest of us to get on with our lives undisturbed as the expected power cuts of the summer did not materialize and as we assume in efficient and high-tech Japan that all of the major problems along the north-east coast of the country must be well on their way to solution.
In fact a personal visit, as well as continuing to closely read reports coming out of the tsunami hit area, shows a very different picture.
              The prefectures to the north of Tokyo and north-east of Tokyo, stretching up the long Pacific coastline from Chiba to Aomori, are still largely rural in nature, with their economic base still in farming, horticulture and fishing. Much of the coastline itself was devastated by the monster tsunami, with dwellings, fishing villages, harbor facilities and fishing boats destroyed. Still vulnerable to any future such event, it has proved hard to reconstruct these communities, if such is ever possible as many members of these villages and small towns were killed, others lost their homes and have been “temporarily” resettled many miles away, boats and tackle lost. A meeting with the head of a fishing association in a small port in Iwaki prefecture made this very clear. We met in the remains of the concrete building that had been the local landing point and fish market for the neighborhood. The building itself still stood although he pointed out a point high up just under the roof to which the wave had reached. Next door the only thing visible was the foundations of what had been the fishery association office, a wooden building totally destroyed by the tsunami, and the wrecked remains of a boat that had been swept inland to the base of the cliff adjacent to the fishing port. He clearly explained that his desire and that of the remaining members of his association was to get back to fishing as soon as they could – as he said, this is what they had done all their lives and is what they love – but the once weekly outing of the remaining boats, each Monday, was simply to catch fish for testing. So far, the radioactivity levels in the sampled fish was far too high for consumption, so no commercial fishing could be resumed. The problem, he explained, was that the coastal currents ran from north to south, so Iwaki, just south of the Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant, was receiving radioactive water from the badly damaged plant, which is itself still in a critical condition and with a huge lake of radioactive seawater that had been pumped up in an attempt to cool the severely damaged reactors, that TEPCO, the power company that runs the plant, wanted to pump back in the Pacific ocean. To make matters worse, part of the problem was not only contaminated water, but also debris on the sea bed, debris almost impossible to recover and which could continue to put radioactivity at very unsafe levels into the environment for years to come. And fish of course move, so even fish caught well outside of the 20 kilometer nautical exclusion zone (matching the one imposed inland from the Fukushima plant) may still be contaminated. The fact that debris from the Japanese coastline has already reached as far as the Pacific Northwest Coast of the US shows how extensive the quite literal fallout from the Fukushima nuclear accident and the tsunami can reach. The result was that there is no known or predictable date by which commercial fishing can be resumed, with fishing communities along the coast facing a blank future of complete uncertainty. The complex traditional rules governing who may fish where also mean that even if Iwaki fishermen were willing to absorb the extra fuel costs and fish up the coast off Aomori, they would not be permitted to do so by the traditional rules of territoriality: in effect they would be poaching in other fishing communities designated zones of operation.
              Travel inland to visit farming communities basically reproduces the same picture, but in an agricultural setting. One strawberry grower, who like many of his profession relies on pickers who come for the fun of picking their own fruit – usually families with children – has seen a 90% drop in visitors to his farm since the earthquake and almost no visitors from outside of the prefecture. Another farmer – in this case one concentrating mainly on drip-fed tomatoes, although he also had crops of figs, asparagus and other vegetables, told us that he could not sell any of his produce outside of the prefecture – the very word “Fukushima” scaring away potential buyers, supermarkets and other outlets. The result was a very limited intra-prefectural market and a steep drop in prices, in some cases by as much as 50%. This is despite all agricultural produce in Fukushima Prefecture and neighboring ones, being thoroughly tested for radioactivity before being allowed to be put on public sale. As one farmer pointed out, this is in large part a problem of public perception: produce grown a hundred meters away across the prefectural boundary and thus not labeled as being of Fukushima origin is considered “safe”, yet his is not simply because of his geographical position. Furthermore, as discussion with prefectural agricultural officials demonstrated, local winds and micro-climates have actually made the situation very complex: there are areas within the prefecture that received very little radiation from the Dai-Ichi plant, where elsewhere, outside of Fukushima prefecture and well beyond the boundaries of the 20 Km exclusion zone, there are “hot spots” that received large doses. Another largely forgotten effect of the tsunami was the storm surge that it sent up rivers and canals, in many cases destroying or damaging irrigation systems far inland, which have had an immediate and long lasting effect on local farmers and horticulturalists dependent upon those systems.
              As the immediate memory of March 11 fades for many people away from the immediately effected zones, the major problems still remain: fisheries devastated, agriculture severely affected, the Dai-Ichi plant itself still in serious condition and with numerous very long term consequences for the surrounding area and the Pacific Ocean, communities destroyed, large numbers of people, including the elderly and children living in temporary housing with their original homes and all their contents destroyed, broken families with many young wives having lost their husbands or a child in the tsunami, parents having lost children or children parents. It is very telling that when residents were briefly allowed back into their homes within the 20Km exclusion zone to collect essential items, one of the major things sought out were photo albums. Not only homes and business were lost, but with them the memories and sense of place found so strongly in deeply rooted rural and coastal communities, communities that probably can never be reconstructed. The psychic and emotional fallout is as great as the physical damage and will take very much longer to repair.
              Returning with vivid impressions of totally destroyed village and small towns, or even more so the bizarre sight of an area of almost total devastation with one building still mysteriously and miraculously standing in the midst of otherwise complete destruction, it is interesting to go back to examining how the issue is still being presented. When one does, some disturbing facts emerge. While the international media and even the local ones too, tend to talk about the “patience”, “fortitude”, and long-suffering of the victims, presenting a picture of a stoic society of great forbearance, actual discussion with local people presents a more complex picture – of huge sorrow, loss, anger at the politicians and TEPCO officials who handled the crisis is such inept and self-serving ways, and huge anger at the recent revelations that at least a quarter of funds earmarked for reconstruction purposes (and raising those funds has imposed new tax burdens on the average Japanese citizen, and a great deal of the money was donated by concerned private individuals) has been siphoned off for uses totally unrelated to helping the heavily damaged North-East. While public opinion has been strongly in favor of phasing out nuclear power generation since the crisis, politicians and energy industry officials have been quietly restarting or preparing to restart idled plants across the country. In short, many of the lessons have not been learnt. In an earthquake and tsunami prone country, this is not good news. It is good that Japan still has some semblance of a critical media. The newly released film Kibo no Kuni (The Land of Hope) by director Sion Sono, depicting a hypothetical future Fukushima-like accident, shows, even if in fictionalized form, the actual emotions of grief, loss, anger and fear that surround such an event, which could well be a realistic future scenario. To actually see the moon like scenery of the destroyed areas and the huge mountains of “trash” – actually the remains of people’s houses and their contents, gives an appreciation of the reality of an event that is quite beyond that seen in the pictures transmitted by the media. Even far inland the damage continues and will have long lasting effects. The traditional pottery town of Mashiko, far from the coast but badly shaken by the huge earthquake saw not only damage to its houses and pottery show rooms, but more significantly to its kilns, many of which are of great antiquity and a high percentage of which were badly damaged and cracked. Unfortunately, there are few people still alive who know the techniques of building such kilns, and with there disappearance a major local art form may diminish or disappear.
              A disaster should be a wake-up call and a source of lessons for the future. But will Fukushima play this role, or will it be back to business as usual, leaving unheard the voices of those whose lives were changed forever on March 11 2011?