Fukushima Prefecture- 福島県
Location: Minamisōma, Fukushima Prefecture
Host: Rokkaku Shietai and the amazing Suzuki family
Dates: August 18-20, 2012
Impressions of the Journey:
With the Japan Railways (JR) Joban line still in a state of disrepair after the March 11 triple disaster last year, the only way to access many of Tohoku’s coastal towns is by car. After arriving in Sendai, we traveled with Hiro Suzuki and his son Shunta via minivan to Minamisoma, a town only 20 kilometers away from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear reactor. Most of Minamisōma was located inside the evacuation zone, though on April 15, 2012 , Minamisōma residents outside the 10k no-go zone were able to return to their homes.
While there has been considerable reconstruction and recovery since last year’s disasters, even the drive to Minamisoma left some very strong and sad impressions. Highway 6, which connects Sendai to points north in Fukushima is an elevated roadway that, for many last year, marked the deciding line between life and death. As the tsunami struck Miyagi Prefecture’s coast and raced inland, people tried to beat the wave by fleeing via Highway 6. Even today, one side of the highway, that facing the ocean, is a patchwork of weeds, overgrowth, mud, and crushed or newly rebuilt houses. On the other side, a postcard of perfect rice fields, spacious farmhouses, and the beautiful Abukuma valley greet the eye. Even 18 months after the tsunami, the juxtaposition is shocking.
The town of Minamisoma continues to deal with the aftermath of not only the earthquake and tsunami, but also of the nuclear accident at the Fukushima Dai-ichi reactor. Entire sections of the town were submerged or reduced to rubble, including portions of the 17 meter tall sea wall built to protect the town from waves like the one that hit Japan’s coast last year. According to Tokiko Suzuki, the vibrant manager of the Rokaku Shientai, a non-profit organization that manages some aspects of Minamisoma’s recovery effort, receiving and cataloguing just about all of the letters, packages, and truckloads of donations and assistance that pour into Minamisoma from around the world. Given that the organization’s headquarters are in a cafe/business hotel, it keeps meticulous records, with binder upon binder of delivery slips and registries of the thank you notes and photos that Rokaku Shientai sent back in return.
Suzuki-san, a 60-something with more energy than most people half her age, showed us around Minamisoma and introduced us to several local farmers. Mr. and Mrs. Watanabe, pictured above, had an extremely memorable story. Before last March, they were rice farmers in Haramachi, an area of Minamisoma 16km from the reactor. After the nuclear accident, the Watanabes fled to Yamagata prefecture, where they stayed in an evacuation center for several months. After a long deliberation, they made the difficult decision to return to Fukushima and resume farming, even when over half of their farmer friends decided either not to return or to abandon farming in favor of other work. Recognizing that it would be difficult to sell Fukushima rice to consumers, they decided to take another route. They met a flower farmer who gave them some seedlings and tips on farming Turuko kikyo, a rare variety of flower that is often in high demand, particularly during Obon season. During the Obon holiday every August, individuals place flowers at the grave sites of their departed ancestors and relatives. To meet the demand for Japanese asters and Turuko kikyo, two of the varieties used for this custom, they started a flower farm in Minamisoma once they were allowed to return. The Watanabes said they have had some failures along and a lot of trial and error along the way, but so far, their project appears to be successful. While they must conduct radiation testing on the soil around the stems of the flowers, even consumers with concerns about radiation are willing to buy their flowers since the produce will be left in a cemetery, rather than consumed or kept in the home.
The Watanabe family’s story was just one of a host of inspiring tales we heard in our brief time in Minamisoma. One of the many striking images that stayed with us long after returning to Tokyo was that of the numerous sunflower fields we saw and walked through. Sunflowers were historically used by Fukushima rice farmers as a rotation crop to enrich the soil and yield sunflower oil, which they sold. After the March 11 triple disaster, rumors of a scientific study regarding the ability of sunflowers to remove radioactive cesium from the ground spread throughout Fukushima, and sunflower fields sprung up across the contaminated area. The thinking of many at the time was that if sunflowers could effectively soak up radioactive cesium, they might present an easier alternative to removing a layer of topsoil from the entire radiation-affected area. Unfortunately, the study was proven to be untrue, as sunflowers only absorbed a tiny fraction of the radioactive cesium contaminating the soil around the Dai-ichi reactor. Thus, the sunflower fields have become a symbol of some of the complexities that will continue to affect Minamisoma and surrounding areas for many years to come.
Among the many people who shared their stories with us, one of the common threads we noticed was the deep level of contemplation that everyone in Fukushima seemed to be immersed in. After 18 months of grief, loss, and dedication to finding a way to start a new life in their completely changed town, Minamisoma residents have come to embrace the fleeting nature of life, and the importance of celebrating small changes and simple pleasures. Perhaps more than most of us, the constant reminders of destruction and regeneration around them have led to an intense awareness that life is ephemeral, or 儚い (hakanai).