I often moved from one place to another within Fukushima prefecture due to my father’s job transfers. We mostly lived in the central area, Fukushima city, located in the north, but also in rural areas such as Onahama and Ono-Ni-Machi, experiencing what Mother Nature had to offer; picking berries in the mountain right outside the backyard, jumping into the river, catching fish and crayfish, and going rice-planting as a school activity. I was always surrounded by mountains and rivers. In the back of my house in Fukushima city, there’s a mountain famous for its beautiful cherry blossoms and flowers in the spring called Hanami-yama, which literally means “mountain to watch flowers.” Every day was an adventure for an elementary schooler. Since those days, I loved going outside.
At school, once the bell rang, screaming to tell us that it’s time for recess, my friends and I would jump outside to play tag, soccer, basketball, and volleyball. My stomach being full after eating two portions of lunch and my side-stomach hurting afterwards because of it, never bothered me. Even at home, I would go out and play tennis, badminton, go running and swimming with my family. I loved being active. The adrenaline rushing through my body as if I’m running for my life during tag, building invisible bonds with people, the fatigued yet refreshed feeling afterwards, I loved everything about playing outside. The sweat and the dirt on my clothes were the only things I didn’t like. Those days are still vividly remembered, safely treasured in my heart.
Living in Tokyo as a 22-year-old woman, I go back to Fukushima once in a while, where my parents and younger sisters live. It’s still the Fukushima I know, with beautiful nature and the not so crowded city mostly consisting of seniors and some youth. Although not as shiny and lively as Tokyo, it’s still an attractive small city where my childhood memories stay. But something is different from when I was small in that same city. I see less children playing and jumping into the river, or running around outside. Well, let me restate that. I see less children in general. One of the reasons is of course because of the dropping birthrate and aging society seen in this country. But when it comes to Fukushima, that’s not the only reason.
Fukushima was one of the victim areas of the earthquake and tsunami that happened on March 11, 2011. This made Fukushima an infamous place worldwide. After the biggest earthquake hit the northeastern part of Japan, multiple massive and strong tsunamis hit the eastern bay area. The following areas were severely affected by the earthquake and tsunami and were widely reported by the media. Rikuzen-Takada city, Kamaishi city, Noda village in Iwate prefecture; Kesen-numa city, Ishi-no-Maki city, Minami-Sanriku city in Miyagi prefecture; Minami-Soma city, Iwaki city, Namie city, Onahama, where I used to live, in Fukushima prefecture, and many more. Although the epicenter was right next to Miyagi prefecture, other areas in Japan were also affected: Urayasu city in Chiba prefecture for its liquefaction; many of the train services were shut down in the central area of Tokyo; 5.15 million people stranded because of it; many were forced to walk for hours and hours to go back home in the cold. Having said this, it cannot be stated more accurately by saying that this incident on March 11 had immensely impacted the people in Japan.
Among these areas, as many people in the world today know, Fukushima was drastically affected by the radiation after the tsunami hit the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant in Okuma city in the bay area. People had to evacuate from radiation-full towns to live in small shelters scattered around the prefecture. 6 years have passed, as of April 2017, there are areas that are still prohibited to enter: Namie, Futaba, and Ookuma city (Fukushima Revival Station, April 2017). The radiation levels are still too high for people to step in. The decontamination work has been conducted by wearing radiation-protective clothing. This is mainly done by locals who stood up and volunteered, and construction workers who were asked by the government. Although there are official groups conducting the work, at places like parks and playgrounds at schools, the parents of the children attending those schools volunteer to do the work as they are immensely worried for their own children’s wellbeing.
After the nuclear power plant explosion in 2011, no one knew what was going on, what to do, or what the effect was on us. What we knew was that, due to the radiation, we should avoid going outside. But when we had to leave our house, we wore masks and clothes that were made of smooth and waterproof material so it wouldn’t absorb the radiation, at least that was what the TV and the internet suggested. When coming back home, my mother would hose down the outside wall of our house with water to minimize the radiation. Because of the radiation in the air, we didn’t hang our clothes or futon outside when drying our laundry. Also, we would pat-down the clothes outside before we entered the house to get rid of any radiation on our clothes, like we do with pollen in spring–we didn’t know if this was something that worked, but it was more about making ourselves feel better by at least doing something.
When my mother measured the radiation level in my room on the second floor, it was 0.9 mSv (microSievert) per hour. It is said that people in Japan are naturally exposed to radiation of 1.5 mSv (2.4 mSv internationally) in the course of a year, even when there is no radiation accident. In comparison to this, my room was contaminated by a very high level of radiation. It is said that radiation is absorbed greatly by dirt, plants and trees. So, my mother cut off a bunch of branches from the garden tree, which was tall enough to be right next to my room. Fortunately, that worked for the better and reduced the level down to less than half. Later on, we stopped growing vegetables and fruits on the trees in our garden, where the land used to be so nutritious that it had pomegranate, plum and lemon trees. We no longer eat our home made traditional summer pasta using fresh tomatoes that once grew in our garden. We still make pasta using store-bought tomatoes, but it never tastes the same anymore.
We also needed to have the sand in front of our house removed. The government officials dug 5cm of contaminated sand and replaced it. Some of the contaminated dirt was placed right behind our house, covered with plastic blue sheets because there was too much to hold at their stockyard. It was only last year that they came to our house and took it away. In Fukushima prefecture, there is 22 million㎥ of decontamination waste, that is 128 Tokyo Domes worth of waste, sitting around in our land. The number itself screams its horrendous reality.
I have two younger sisters who are twins. Back then in 2011, they were 7 years old. It is said that the younger the person is, the more likely it is for them to be affected by the radiation. However, if we live in a radiation-free environment for about a month, our body gets cleansed by the fresh air and is good as new. They have decades and decades more to live. We wanted the effect for them to be as small as possible, so we thought of moving out of Fukushima. But that thought only lived for a few seconds since my father is a police officer, and my mother a teacher working for the Fukushima prefecture – we had no choice but to stay within that area. So, the least and the most we could do, was to have the twins evacuate from Fukushima city during the long summer and winter break, to Aizu area where our grandmother lived, the west part of Fukushima where it was not as affected by the radiation.
To this day, the government provides us with free health check-ups for those who lived in Fukushima during the time of the incident. In elementary schools, doctors who specialize in radiation come over for the check-up. It has been almost 7 years from the incident and my sisters have been examined about three times. Nothing bad has shown up on the result so far, and hopefully it never does.
Something my mother does is to keep those positive results. One of the reasons why we hold on to these is to protect ourselves. When my older brother moved to Tokyo to enter university in 2011, one of the students once called him names saying he is contaminated by radiation because he is from Fukushima. My brother never told me the specifics but I still remember as a family, we were very upset that he had to go through such nonsense. Fortunately, he was the only individual who treated my brother wrong, but if this name-calling were to be done by officials who possess authority, it’s a different story. That’s when we can take out our positive results and say “We are clean. We are O.K.” Of course, there is no proof that radiation can be transmitted to people by sharing the same air or room, but we still hold on to these results to combat those who are ignorant.
It has been 7 years since this accident happened and we experienced this confusion, yet there are many people who cannot go back home because of it, and people in Fukushima still coexist with this invisible threat called radiation. Some say it takes 170 years for it to disappear. Within 20 km radius from the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant is where habitation restriction is ordered, and where it’s difficult for locals to return and get back to their normal life. It saddens me to see seniors still going back to those radiation-affected towns even though they know about the harm, saying because that’s our home.
According to the Fukushima Prefecture Website, in 2010, there were 276,069 children under the age of 15 living in the area. In the course of 7 years, that number was reduced by 20%. This is not just because of the declining birth rate and aging population. If we look at the population of children under the age of 15 in Fukushima prefecture from 1 year after the March 11 incident, it had declined by 15,494 from 2012 to 2013. The notion that children being exposed to radiation can be a big harm for them, the younger the greater, has spread throughout the country, hence the big reduction. From 2011, people were encouraged not to go outside. In schools, we were not allowed to have P.E. outside. Having this situation, the prefecture and cities have made indoor playrooms for children, encouraged indoor activities, instead of outdoors. People began avoiding going out, people lived in fear, eventually moving out from Fukushima to somewhere with radiation-free air just to live a safe and normal life.
I guess that explains why I see less children in general, much less playing outside like I did as a child. What a nuclear power plant, the product of human-desire to create more energy to live and satisfy our advanced lifestyle, did to my city will forever be a deep-rooted scar in our history.
What the Nagasaki and Hiroshima nuclear bombing in 1945 taught us was how catastrophic nuclear power can be to us humans and to the land. What the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986 taught us to this day, was how difficult it is and how long it takes to solve a nuclear disaster. Yet again, we had to have another lesson in 2011. We have seen too many nuclear related tragedies by now. And yet, countries possessing nuclear weapons exist today, in the name of protection from other countries’ attack and power. This leaves many of us living on the planet in fear, only to hope that another nuclear incident in history, potentially the biggest, will not happen. If so, not only will people leave their homeland. We will vanish from this home planet.
Why do these incidents keep happening? I ask myself sometimes. Some of it, I think is because our remembrance regarding the cruel nuclear aftermath is vanishing from our memory, and because we decided that maintaining our advanced, everyday lifestyle outweighs the risk. To not leave another nuclear scar in history, to not have more children vanishing from the playgrounds, we need to remember and understand what nuclear power does to us vulnerable humans. But if that doesn’t wake us up, which it clearly hasn’t, considering the current North Korea situation and the fact that there are still cities in Japan that decided to restart their nuclear power plant, I don’t know what will. I would like an answer.
Mariko Konno graduated from the Department of English Studies in 2018. This essay originally appeared in the 3rd issue of Angles, the student journal of new writing.