The surreal morning of Thursday, June 15 spent shepherded around the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant was followed by a sobering , all-too-real afternoon visiting to a town devastated by radioactive contamination.
Tomioka, a town located approximately six miles south of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, was home to 15,830 people before March 11, 2011. As of February 2018, only 429 residents have returned. Evacuation orders have been lifted for only 35% of the town, meaning 65% Tomioka is restricted to short-term visits by residents. A vast police force patrols the barricaded roads leading into the restricted area in order to prevent further contamination as well as thwart persistent looters.
Our guide into Tomioka was Kanno Toshiyuki-san, director of the Tomioka Town Support Center and lifelong resident. As with the nuclear reactor, entrance to the restricted areas requires an application and advanced approval, and I am grateful for my colleagues at the Kahoku Shimpo for completing the application on my behalf. We were instructed to wear radiation meters and protective gear on our legs. After a careful check by policemen guarding the barricades began our bleak tour.
The deserted town could easily be mistaken for the set of a post-apocalyptic horror film. Even seven years after the disaster conspicuous signs of a rushed evacuation remain everywhere -coffee cups left on tables in cafes, knocked-over cans of soda in vending machine windows, family photos in broken frames left scattered on the floor. Yonomori Station, once famous for the its gorgeous azalea shrubs, is overgrown with weeds. Kanno-san explains that decontamination of the site has proceeded enough for construction teams to tear the station down, to the great regret of residents who once cherished it.
What exactly does "decontamination" mean? Kanno-san answers this question by driving us ten minutes outside of town to an enormous landfill literally overflowing with plastic trash bags. In Fukushima, "decontamination" has meant scraping the top soil, bagging it, and moving it somewhere else. That's it. In theory, this process would reduce radiation levels in affected areas enough to allow citizens to return. In reality, however, this "decontamination" process has proceeded in only a tiny portion of the affected areas and resulted in over 9 million bags of contaminated soil. These radioactive trash bags mostly remain in the areas where they are generated, will rupture in five years and will have to be bagged again. Like the radioactive water, what will happen to these bags is uncertain - the government has announced it will decide how to deal with them after 2025.
In spite of the blood, sweat, and tears of thousands of workers and trillions of yen, this enormous undertaking has failed to significantly reduce radiation levels in many areas across Fukushima. Justified on the grounds of enabling former residents to return, it has instead only decontaminated small areas and created vast radioactive landfills which are likely to become permanent nuclear dumps. And even if the "decontamination" process succeeds, will people choose to live here? Since evacuation orders were lifted in March 2017, only 4.6% of Tomioka residents have returned.
As I gazed upon the tractors removing top soil, the cranes arranging the ugly plastic bags into neat rows, and the heavy traffic of trucks shuttling waste, workers, and tourists, I was again overwhelmed by despair at the unfathomable waste and ruin. When I lived in Tokyo, my former roommate had once seriously suggested to me that the best solution to the nuclear crisis would be for the government to resettle everyone living in contaminated areas to Hokkaido. Although at the time I had dismissed the idea as callous and insensitive, seeing the Sisyphean task of decontamination with my own eyes the proposal now appeared a rational alternative. For lifetime residents such as Kanno-san, Tomioka is more than just a place they once lived - it is a sacred, ancestral home, and I understand their desire to see it restored to how it once was. However, no amount of effort can ever change what happened. Even if 100% of the town is decontaminated, many of the town's older residents will not live long enough to return, and the younger residents will have built a life elsewhere. Kanno-san acknowledged that his beloved Tomioka would never be the same, and that heartbreak, failure, pain, tragedy, and disappointment are an unavoidable part of life, individually and collectively.
Fukk?, a Japanese word meaning recovery, restoration, and reconstruction, has been the undisputed goal and rallying cry for the people of Tohoku since the 3/11 disaster. Until witnessing visiting Fukushima I had never questioned the practical and ethical meaning of fukk?. If my childhood home was destroyed in a natural disaster, of course I would want it rebuilt. The people of Tohoku have suffered enough and allowing them to return to their original homes is the least we can do to aid in the healing process.
Since my visit to Tomioka, however, I wonder if moving forward, rather than recovering what was lost, should be at the heart of post-disaster efforts. I will never come close to appreciating the breadth and depth of suffering experienced by the people of Tohoku and am in no position to make judgements about what is and what is not necessary for healing. In this tragedy there are no solutions, only actions. Is it permissible to ask which actions are most effective, ethical, or expedient? How do we consider the cost of these actions? Is it ethnical to question the wishes of those who have suffered? The discussion around these issues is just as precarious as the status of the Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. My afternoon in Tomioka made me painfully aware of the tortured process by which we attempt to honor the past and move toward the future.
About the Author
Hello! My name is Terasa Younker and I am a graduate student at Harvard University． This summer I will be working as an intern in the Disaster Prevention & Education Section of the Kahoku Shimpo． As a second‐year student in the Regional Studies ‐ East Asia program I study gender， material culture and consumption， social stratification and popular culture， globalization and cultural diffusion in contemporary Japanese society． I received my undergraduate education at New York University （’10）， where I studied East Asian language， literature， art history， philosophy， history， and film theory． My study abroad experience includes Columbia University in Beijing， Princeton University in Ishikawa， and the Kyoto Consortium for Japanese Studies．
After graduating from NYU， I spent a year as a translator， a year studying advanced Japanese at the Inter‐University Center for Japanese Study in Yokohama， and three years as an account manager at Rakuten， a Japanese firm in Tokyo． At Rakuten， I was a member of the Tokyo Metropolitan Sales group and worked with hotels in central Tokyo as well as the Tokyo Islands．
Although I lived in Japan for a total of five years I never had the opportunity to visit Tohoku． I am incredibly grateful for this opportunity to explore of an area of Japan not well known in the United States and hope to promote understanding of the region upon my return．