Resilience, Restoration, Renewal: Tales from post-3.11 Fukushima

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

Three Fukushimas: The people of Fukushima say that there are actually three Fukushimas. Looking at the map of the prefecture, we can easily see why this is the case. With the area covering 13,783 km2, Fukushima is the third largest prefecture, after Hokkaido and Iwate, among the 47 prefectures in Japan.

Three Fukushimas refer to three regions in the Fukushima prefecture: Hamadori (the coastal region), Nakadori (the central region), and Aizu (the Aizu region). They are regarded as three distinct regions mainly because they have different climates and landscapes, with the Abukuma Highlands running between Hamadori and Nakadori, and the Ou Mountains between Nakadori and Aizu. Reflecting differences in their natural environments, the three regions of Fukushima have developed different cultures and industries, and have even bred different temperaments and personality types.

Hamadori along the Pacific coastline is blessed with relatively mild climate and boasts beautiful shorelines, attracting many tourists and vacationers for swimming and strolling on its beaches during summer and bathing and relaxing in its hot springs during winter. Considering its location, it comes as no surprise that fishery, along with tourism, is the major industry in this region.

Nakadori, the most populous of the three regions, is home to Fukushima City, the prefecture capital, and Koriyama, the commercial center and the transportation hub of the prefecture. Nakadori is also the agricultural center of the prefecture as it is blessed with fertile fields cultivated on plains and mild slopes of its hills and low mountains. Roughly 60 percent of agricultural households of the prefecture are located in this region, producing rice, vegetables, and fruits.

Aizu is the region surrounded by high mountains, with more than sixty of them exceeding thousand meters high. It is known for its beautiful landscapes of mountains and lakes, especially around Mt. Bandai, recognized as a signature mountain of the region. This region, too, attracts many tourists who come to enjoy its landscapes and outdoor activities, and to look for elaborate handicrafts such as lacquer wares and painted candles, made by local artisans who have been making these handicrafts for generations.

Three regions in the wake of the 3.11 disaster: The massive earthquake and tsunami that hit northern Japan on March 11, 2011 have left visible scars in Fukushima, especially in cities and towns along the Pacific coastline: crumbling buildings, houses completely washed away by the tsunami with only their foundations remaining, fields covered with debris, uneven roads with cracks, and pine trees removed from their roots. What distinguishes Fukushima from its northern neighbors of Miyagi and Iwate prefectures is that the people of Fukushima, in addition to the physical destruction due to the earthquake and tsunami, have been the victims of the psychological trauma and stress due to the disaster that took place at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant (Fukushima Daiichi). Because of the lasting effects of deadly radioactive particles that have fallen on their houses, gardens, playgrounds, fields, hills, mountains, lakes, and rivers from the explosion at Fukushima Daiichi, the agony and pain of the people of Fukushima are expected to last for long years to come.

Of the three regions, Hamadori has been most directly affected by the nuclear disaster because Fukushima Daiichi is located in this region. The residents of towns like Okuma, Tomioka, and Futaba, which are within 10 kilometers from Fukushima Daiichi, are unlikely to be able to go back to their homes they had evacuated for at least thirty years, given the half-life of Cesium-137, which is the major source of radiation. The challenge facing the residents of Hamadori, especially the evacuees from these towns who now reside in temporary houses in cities like Iwaki, the largest city in the region, is to find safe places to live and earn their livelihoods.

Nakadori continues to perform its function as the center of political and commercial life for the prefecture after the 3.11 disaster. Major cities in the region such as Fukushima City and Koriyama have accepted over 20,000 evacuees from Hamodori as these cities, about 60 kilometers away from Fukushima Daiichi, are regarded as relatively safe for evacuees to live and earn their livelihoods. But the region has not been exempt from the radioactive ashes that have fallen on its fields. The challenge for the region is, therefore, how to remove radioactive particles from the soil so that crops from its fertile fields become safe to eat again.

Aizu, being farthest away from Fukushima Daiichi, has been spared from the problem of removing radioactive particles from its fields, hills, mountains, lakes, and rivers. However, the region has also been affected by the disaster at Fukushima Daiichi as many evacuees, both voluntary and forced, ended up living in cities and towns in the region. Aizu Wakamatsu, a major city in the region about 100 kilometers from Fukushima Daiichi, has been the host city for the evacuees from the town of Okuma. With the size of population roughly one third of larger cities like Iwaki and Koriyama, Aizu Wakamatsu is finding it difficult to provide administrative and moral support for the evacuees, which requires building temporary houses, sharing spaces for offices and schools, and securing qualified mental health professionals.

Resiliency, restoration, renewal: The question of how soon, if ever, Fukushima evacuees will be able to return to their homes will depend on the progress of decontamination work at Fukushima Daiichi and other contaminated areas in the prefecture. About 60,000 of Fukushima evacuees are estimated to be living outside the prefecture, including about 17,000 under age eighteen, and about 100,000 evacuees are living within the prefecture. The prospect of these evacuees returning to towns near Fukushima Daiichi is very slim, to say the least. Okuma and Tomioka, two towns in the immediate vicinity of Fukushima Daiichi, officially declared, in September 2012, that their evacuees will not return to their homes at least for the next five years. Futaba is also contemplating to have the whole town officially designated as the area unfit to return.

With the dimming prospect of returning to their homes, Fukushima evacuees are suffering from the highest rate of what is called the disaster-related deaths—deaths that have taken place during evacuation due either to sickness or to stress of living in temporary houses—among the three prefectures of Fukushima, Miyagi, and Iwate. They are also suffering from subtle—and sometimes not so subtle—discrimination from residents of host cities and towns simply because they are evacuees from the contaminated cities and towns in Fukushima. Evacuees tell stories of their autos being damaged by vandalism because they display Fukushima license plates. They also tell stories of the difficulties they face in trying to find new jobs outside the prefecture, given the stagnant state of the Japanese economy. Most disheartening, however, are the stories they tell of young evacuees from Fukushima being bullied at host schools once they are found out to be evacuees from Fukushima.

Resilience is what is required of the people of Fukushima, evacuees as well as those who have stayed behind. Those who have stayed behind include the residents of cities like Iwaki, Fukushima City, Koriyama, Nihonmatsu, and Aizu Wakamatsu, which are regarded as safe-distance away from Fukushima Daiichi, and serve as hosts to evacuees from towns like Okuma, Tomioka, Futaba, and Naraha. Some of these evacuees are engaged in the decontamination work at Fukushima Daiichi and the areas around it, clinging to a faint hope that their towns will some day become habitable again. Farmers living outside of the immediate vicinity of Fukushima Daiichi are another group of people who have stayed behind to continue to cultivate their lands and harvest their crops. As for evacuees, most of them are pushed to the limit of their resilience as they are forced to live in temporary houses in unfamiliar environments. It comes as no surprise, then, that some evacuees from Okuma have chosen to leave the unfamiliar environment of Aizu Wakamatsu to move back to Iwaki which, being in Hamadori, is closer to their hometown and more familiar to them.

Resilience is also the quality that is required of the soil in Fukushima, with agriculture playing a more important role for its economy than manufacturing. When we talk of resilience here, we are of course talking about the restorative power of the soil. And there are a few signs that point to the resiliency of the soil in Nakadori, the agricultural center of the prefecture. While the crops harvested in 2011 were simply too dangerous to eat because of high radiation, the crops harvested in 2012 have shown remarkable reduction in radiation levels. In fact, rice and most vegetables harvested from fields in the Nihonmatsu area, which is some 50 kilometers away from Fukushima Daiichi, have been carefully tested and declared to be radiation-free, though wild vegetables like mushrooms, which grow on mountain slopes, and fruits like persimmons, which grow on trees, are still regarded as inedible. What this means for the farmers in Nakadori is that, while their hills and mountains are still contaminated by radioactive particles, their fields are recovering from the contamination thanks to their efforts to neutralize the soil with xeolites and other neutralizing materials. But more than anything else, it was the sheer determination of farmers in Nakadori to restore their region as the agricultural center of the prefecture that has drawn out the restorative power of the soil.

For the people in Aizu, resilience needs to be combined with the spirit of renewal as the region lags behind other regions economically because of its geography tucked away in the mountains. While not directly affected by the disaster at Fukushima Daiichi, Aizu has also suffered economic loss in the form of dramatic reductions in the number of visitors to the region. Aizu Wakamatsu saw the number of visitors plunge in 2011 for the false rumor that the region, too, was heavily contaminated by radioactive particles. Thanks to the renewed efforts of local leaders in politics and business, tourists are now beginning to come back to the region’s hot springs, lakes, and mountains. The city of Aizu Wakamatsu hosted, on November 24, 2012, a festival to summon the spirit of renewal from local residents, reminding them that the region once prided itself as the cultural center not only of Aizu but also of Fukushima. The organizers chose the theme of “Never give up!” for the festival to remind the people of Aizu to re-develop the region as a model of sustainable community based on resources available in the region.

The Miracle of Transformation

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

“A miracle may be accurately defined,” wrote David Hume (1711-1776) in his essay titled An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, published in 1748, “as a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent.”1 Great infidel that he was, seeing nature as the work of “some deity who afterwards abandoned it, ashamed of his lame performance”, Hume was unlikely to have turned to the Deity as the miracle worker. And as a dominant figure of the Enlightenment who had an unfailing faith in the power of reason, Hume was also unlikely to have sought some invisible agent behind miracles. This leaves us with but one conclusion: that the above definition was actually Hume’s way of negating the existence of miracles. In fact, later in the same essay, Hume goes on to say, “No human testimony can have such force as to prove a miracle and make it a just foundation for any such system of religion.”2

Hume’s negation of miracles must have posed a bold challenge to the theological tradition of the West, which had been dominated by doctrines sanctioned by the Church. Even Spinoza (1632-1677), known as the great rationalist philosopher of the seventeenth century, was ready to admit that the Bible, which is full of stories of miracles, must be treated as an exceptional, privileged document because people in biblical days were limited in their powers of observation and reasoning. As a matter of fact, the existence of miracles had been—as indeed it still is—sanctioned by none other than the authority of the Church. The strongest expression of the Church’s position on miracles can be found in the following statement from the First Vatican Council in 1870: “If anyone shall say that miracles can never be known for certain, or that the divine origin of the Christian religion cannot properly be proved by them: let him be cast out.”3

In negating the existence of miracles, Enlightenment thinkers like Hume went to the other extreme with their firm conviction that all natural events and phenomena could ultimately be made intelligible by rational inquiry. Their conviction has been bolstered by the development of modern science, as scientists have steadily expanded their body of knowledge of the natural world with discoveries of the laws of nature. The success of classical physics since Newton (1642-1727), in particular, should be noted as it set the stage for the emergence of “determinism”, an idea initially formulated by Laplace (1749-1827), a pivotal figure in the development of mathematical astronomy, which would completely eliminate miracles from the natural world. As Hawking and Mlodinow explain, “determinism” is the notion that “given the state of the universe at one time, a complete set of laws fully determines both the future and the past. This would exclude the possibility of miracles or an active role for God.”4

“Materialism” is a strong version of “determinism”, for it asserts that matter is the fundamental constituent of the universe and that the motions and behaviors of all material objects can ultimately be understood in terms of fundamental particles and the forces governing them. It was not until the emergence of quantum mechanics in the early part of the twentieth century that scientists started to raise doubts about “materialism”, as they came to recognize the essential role of the observer in the discovery of the laws of nature. Some modern scientists are ready to argue that consciousness must be included as an essential aspect of our descriptions about natural events and phenomena. However, they have not quite converted other scientists to their view who still cling to the materialist view of consciousness as a derived phenomenon that emerges from the workings of the material brain.

Turning our attention to the tradition of Eastern thought, Buddhism shares certain aspects of “determinism”, for it, too, excludes the possibility of miracles or an active role for God. However, Buddhism certainly rejects “materialism” as it, like quantum physics, recognizes that consciousness is an essential aspect of the evolution of the universe, as the Dalai Lama explains: “Buddhism … explains the evolution of the cosmos in terms of the principle of dependent origination, in that the origin and existence of everything has to be understood in terms of the complex network of interconnected causes and conditions. This applies to consciousness as well as matter.”5

The principle of “dependent origination”, or paticca-samuppada, is the theory of evolutionary change in Buddhist thought. It is a universal principle in that it applies to every possible event or phenomenon in the universe. This does not mean that we can identify all the causes and conditions behind a specific event or phenomenon. What we do know is that every event or phenomenon comes about as a result of the concurrence of all possible causes and conditions. To the extent that dependent origination is a universal principle, there is no place for any miraculous event or phenomenon that cannot be explained by this principle. Does this mean that it is un-Buddhist to talk about miracles?

Not necessarily, for we have none other than Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay), a recognized authority on Buddhist thought today, talking about miracles. However, when Thay talks about miracles, he is not talking about the kinds of miracles recounted in biblical stories. “People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don’t even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child—or our own two eyes. All is a miracle.”6 To walk on Earth—mindfully, that is—is what Thay means when he talks about a miracle. To walk mindfully is a miracle because sati, or mindfulness, enables us to transform ourselves to see things as they are and to see ourselves as we really are.

While mindfulness is a miracle, no external authority will sanction that we have accomplished this miracle. Although a seasoned master can be a guide in our practice to transform ourselves, it is up to us, individual practitioners, to realize that we have reached the level of accomplishment that can be called a miracle—a miracle that can only be described as the miracle of transformation.

  1. Hume, David, On Human Nature and Understanding, New York: Macmillan, 1962, p. 120.
  2. Ibid., p. 133.
  3. First Vatican Council (On Line).
  4. Hawking, Stephen, and Mlodinow, Leonard, The Grand Design, New York: Bantam Books, 2010.
  5. The Dalai Lama, The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality, New York: Broadway Books, 2005.
  6. Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness, Boston: Beacon Press, 1975.