Koriyama, Fukushima – On March 11, 2011 the world all but ended for the people who live on the Tohoku coast. The North Eastern Japanese region was rocked by a 9.0 earthquake which generated a tsunami that inundated the entire shoreline, with up to 30 meters of water in some towns . The tsunami waves killed nearly 16,000 people, destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes, inflicted billions of dollars in damage, and unleashed a nuclear crisis the likes of which has not been seen since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. But life, however dark the circumstances, always finds a way. In admiration of the spirit of ganbate, or “fight on” in Japanese, the world poured in support for the survivors of the calamity. Slowly but steadily, Tohoku’s residents persevered on the long road toward recovery. Neither a nuclear scientist nor a marine biologist, I cannot address the issue of radiation levels in the ocean. Like the majority of the population of Fukushima Prefecture, I am an ordinary person with personal anxieties and concerns, but I have the opportunity to share the experience of those people who still can’t go home. I haven’t come here with an agenda or a preconceived notion. I’m not here to prove to the world that Fukushima is safe, or cry foul that we’re being misled about dangers that might persist. I’ve come here to share the agenda of those who live here, and to seek out people who wish to share their story, and to remind the world that five years on, there are still some who can’t go home because of “the disaster,” as its commonly called here.
For the next four months I will call Koriyama, Fukushima home. One of my first stops in the city was the “Big I,” one of the tallest buildings in the Tohoku region located right in front of Koriyama Station. From the observation deck atop the building I could see the entire city cast in the warm glow of the sun setting behind the Ou mountain range that runs through Fukushima Prefecture. From up there everything looked normal: the bullet trains zoomed through in and out the station, cars paced steadily through the streets, and people went about their daily lives. You couldn’t tell that there were thousands of stories unfolding below, stories waiting to be told, or stories that some were attempting to withhold. It’s my first week here and I feel like I have a metaphorical bird’s eye view too. I’m coming from the outside, and slowly, as the weeks unfold, I will get closer and closer to the heart of what’s going on as the fifth anniversary approaches.
Fukushima is one of Japan’s biggest prefectures, and is split into three regions: Hamadori to the east, home to the crippled nuclear reactor, Nakadori in the central part where I live, and Aizu in the west. The accident at Fukushima Dai Ichi Nuclear Power Plant offers a picture of a world gone wrong, a picture of how humanity adapts in the face of disaster, both natural and man-made. Those who live in Fukushima seem to have found a way to adapt to the changes forced upon them by the disaster. In the immediate aftermath everything touched by radiation emitting from Hamadori had to be decontaminated, top soil removed, buildings and facilities scrubbed clean, contaminated debris stored. Radiation monitoring posts have since been stationed throughout the entire prefecture. They give constant readings that indicate radiation can vary from street corner to street corner. Local farmers must submit their produce to radiation checks, and can only sell it if they pass muster. Fukushima used to attract tourists from all around the world, coming to Aizu to ski its world class slopes, to taste their famously delicious sake, or bath in the healing waters of their hot springs. In the aftermath of the disaster, tourism rates to the prefecture have plummeted. Out in the streets in town squares or at the local Starbucks where I am sitting writing this blog post, evacuees, like the radiation levels that prevent them from going home, are invisible. You can’t tell how people have been affected just by looking at the customers coming in and out of the coffee shop, just like you can’t see the radiation that has pervaded the region. In coming months I will discover these stories, and share what I find. I expect to meet hope, sorrow, and resilience.