Pure land lost for Fukushima evacuees

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

To a farmer, the land he cultivates and lives on carries a special meaning not only as the place of his livelihood but also as the source of his sense of belonging, connectedness, and continuity. With a few acres of his family farm to attend to, a farmer can indeed be a model of the happy man that appears in ‘Ode on Solitude’ by Alexander Pope (1688-1744):

Happy the man, whose wish and care
A few paternal acres bound,
Content to breathe his native air,
In his own ground.

Developing, as he does, a strong sense of attachment to his native air and land, it is natural that a farmer, when forced to abandon the land of his wish and care and move to a new place, finds the experience quite devastating and traumatic.

Such is indeed the case with the farmers and their families of Okuma, a coastal town in Fukushima Prefecture, who were forced to abandon their lands in the wake of the massive earthquake that shook northern Japan on March 11, 2011. Unlike the residents of other coastal cities and towns, the people of Okuma were not forced to abandon their homes because of the tsunami’s destructive power. Their misfortune was that the town was the host to four of the six ill-fated nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.

The evacuation of the people of Okuma, which started two days after the quake, is an ongoing saga that continues to this day. By now, most of about 11,000 people from Okuma have settled down in cities and towns that are a safe distance away from the nuclear power plants. However, “settle down” is clearly a misnomer to describe the situation in which the people from Okuma find themselves, for they are living with a whole array of hardships that all contribute to their stress.

Having to live in a new and unfamiliar environment is, in itself, a source of stress. In the case of the city of Aizu Wakamatsu, which is home to the largest settlement of the people from Okuma, the harsh natural environment—steamy hot summer and damp cold winter—of this inland city surrounded by mountains is a major source of their stress. Moreover, the temporary houses provided for the people from Okuma, although equipped with the basic necessities of life such as utilities and appliances, are too small and too crowded compared with the comfort and security of their homes in Okuma, which they are allowed to visit on designated days but are not allowed to go back to live in.

More than anything else, mental stress is taking the heaviest toll on the people from Okuma. While they all look for a day when they will be able to go back to their homes, that prospect looks very bleak, especially for the elderly, considering that their contaminated houses will not be fit for living for at least 30 years. “There are just two options left for us: go back alive to Okuma or go back dead to be buried,” goes one line in a song the people from Okuma composed out of dejection and self-pity.

The town government in exile does provide counseling services to those who are in need of them. However, the number of qualified counselors is too few relative to the need for their services. To make matters worse, the counselors themselves are refugees going through the stress of adjusting to living and working in a new environment. They are lucky to have their jobs, unlike the elderly farmers who have given up their hope of working and living on their own farms.

Even religion fails to provide a sense of comfort and security for the people from Okuma leading their daily lives under stress in a new and unfamiliar environment. In fact, what are intended to be kind and encouraging words to cheer up the people living in temporary houses can become a source of irritation—even anger—unless the words are delivered with due consideration and true understanding of the situation. Words such as “This is your new home now” and “You must find happiness, living here and now” fall on deaf ears as these people continue to dream of a day when they will return to their native air and land.

Jigoku ichinyo” (“Hell is inevitable”), the words ascribed to Shinran (1173-1263), the founder of the True Pure Land sect of Buddhism in Japan, may best capture the sentiment of the people from Okuma who are going through the agony and pain of having abandoned their native air and land out of no fault of their own. For the people from Okuma, the place they have left behind with idyllic farms cultivated by and inherited from their ancestors perhaps comes closest to their idea of the Pure Land in this world, the land they wish to go back one day to be reunited with their ancestors. That Pure Land, now contaminated with deadly radioactive particles, is lost forever as far as the people from Okuma are concerned.

 * An article originally published in Japan Today, September 4, 2012.

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