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.