FUKUSHIMA, Japan—For the past two months, I’ve been traveling across Fukushima, the site of the 2011 nuclear disaster, to interview local residents and give voice to the people directly affected by the accident.
It’s been five years since a giant earthquake triggered a tsunami that inundated the Tohoku coast, killing over 17,000 people and causing the core meltdown of the nuclear reactors at Dai Ichi Nuclear Power Plant.
After the March 11, 2011, event, a 12-mile (20-kilometer) exclusion zone has sat largely uninhabited. About 70,000 nuclear refugees are still scattered around Tohoku in temporary housing communities.
Thanks to decontamination efforts, decaying radioactive elements such as cesium, as well as environmental factors such as typhoons and storms, radiation levels in Fukushima have fallen. Restrictions on entry to formerly abandoned towns are slowly being lifted.
But for many, the future remains uncertain, and anxiety looms large.
These are their stories.
Photos by Ari Beser
Yoshiko Amano, Nihonmatsu. “My children are living and working in Iwaki nearby Namie, our hometown. They work for the Dai Ichi Nuclear Power Plant. They screen people that go in and out of the nuclear reactor to see how much radiation the workers have been exposed to. They do not go in themselves, they work in an area with low levels of radiation, but they are exposed to the people who come from there and I worry about them. It’s been five years since the disaster, but we are willing to go back home. We just want to see the radiation problem solved, but it takes time, and there is nothing to do but wait. We are suffering from stress more than anything. We can’t go home. We can’t go anywhere new. We are stuck in limbo and it has traumatized us. Now it is Winter. Winters here are much colder than Namie. It doesn’t snow there, we could walk around outside in a T-shirt and jacket, but here in Nihonmatsu it starts getting cold after 3 p.m. and I have to wear many layers, but you know, we are used to it now that we’ve been here for so long.”
Takue Hosokawa, Iitate. “My grandfather started this farm, and I inherited it from my father. When the nuclear reactor melted down, I refused to leave behind the horses, and I tended to all 130 of the animals on this farm despite the contamination around here. The radiation killed 90 of them, we only have 40 of them left alive. I watched them get sick and die over the last five years. What else could have done this? When we did an autopsy we found 200 becquerel/kg of cesium in their muscle, but that is not enough to be considered lethal. Many of my surviving horses have been sent to live on other farms, but I have to prove my ownership of them to get compensation. So far I have not been compensated for any of them, but I also have not given up. If I have to, I’ll die here with my horses.”
Katsuko Arima, Sukagawa. “I opened [the organic restaurant] Ginga No Hotori [which translates to Edge of the Galaxy]’s new branch on March 11, 2011, the day of the disaster. My mission has always been to help people realize they can change their eating habits, not just by eating here but at home as well. Food is medicine. [But] however healthy the food, if it isn’t tasty, no one will eat it. The accident caused a far worse problem for our food than pesticides. Customers who come to this type of organic restaurant were the first to leave Fukushima. We couldn’t serve from our garden. That’s why we started monitoring. We use a greenhouse sheltered from the effects of cesium and the rice we had on reserved from the year before, and have been in production ever since. I’ve added new ingredients to the menu, for example I’ve added roasted Adzuki bean to my coffee and cocoa cleanses. [I believe it] enhances antibodies and the rate of secretion of cesium from the body. Now my philosophy has evolved from healthy eating, conscious living, to processing the nuclear exposure from our bodies.”
Mayor Masato Shinagawa, Koriyama. “The biggest problem facing Fukushima today is the decommissioning of the nuclear reactor and the decontamination of the prefecture. For the most part we have been able to clean up the cities, but our next challenge is the woods. We are working on our solution for this problem now. We Japanese people have faced a history of natural disasters. We are resilient. When I look back at the last five years I can only draw inspiration from the tireless efforts of those in charge of cleaning up after the tsunami. I live on and I work for them. I cannot give up, I wake up every morning for the people. I serve the people, and I will do my best to ensure that not only are they safe, but they have peace of mind. I encourage you to look at the website of the city government. We post all of our radiation readings there. Our regional newspaper posts the readings as reported by Safecast [the citizen science network of radiation reporting].”
Jun Yamadera, Aizu Wakamatsu. “I couldn’t think of a better place to run my company than Aizu Wakamatsu. It’s my hometown. We work with many kinds of technology, mainly for cyber security, but our new project is going to reinvent the wheel. We call it Fukushima Wheel, it’s in the startup phase now, but I hope to make bicycle wheels that contribute to accurate radiation level reporting wherever the bike rider goes. It won’t only measure radiation, but also temperature and air quality as well. The more [we] measure the environment around us, the better we can understand the environment. I’m not going to just sit here and accept the fate of Fukushima, I’m taking a part in making sure people actually know what is going on. I’m not pro- or anti-nuclear, I’m pro-data, and pro-science. I went to Helsinki and road my bike with a radiation censor. I met my friends. They asked, ‘Oh, are you still living in Fukushima? Isn’t it dangerous?’ Of course there are some areas, but it turns out that the city of Helsinki has double the radiation as Aizu. I don’t criticize them, but they don’t have the information.”
Shizuko Watanabe (Front, Center), Minamisoma “For a year after the disaster, we saw many volunteers coming in to our city. Watching these people come in and help us in our darkest hour lifted my spirits. I simply wanted to thank them, so I used to greet them with hot miso soup. They kept coming, and I kept cooking. Eventually I and my friends opened up Odaka no Hirugohan [Odaka’s Lunch] as a way of providing some warm delicious food to the decontamination workers, the volunteers, and even the media who came to tell our stories. Odaka is still under restriction, even though levels here are some of the lowest in the entire prefecture, we can only come back for the day. I personally still live in temporary housing in Haramachi. Only those who apply for permission to stay overnight can do so. When the restrictions are lifted, I’ll give back this space to the original owners who used to run a soba shop here. I can’t wait to go back home and just be a housewife again.”
Ari M. Beser is the grandson of Lt. Jacob Beser, the only U.S. serviceman aboard both bomb-carrying B-29s. He is traveling through Japan with the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship to report on the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the fifth anniversary of the Great East Japan earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdowns in Fukushima. Beser will give voice to people directly affected by nuclear technology today, as well as work with Japanese and Americans to encourage a message of reconciliation and nuclear disarmament. His new book, “The Nuclear Family,” focuses on the American and Japanese perspectives of the atomic bombings.