Minami Soma.

Meet Toyoko Suzuki. She lives right on the border of the 20km exclusion zone around the Fukushima plant:

Seven people used to live in her house, including her son, her daughter and her children. Now it’s just herself, her husband and her mother- the others have evacuated to Sendai and Fukui prefecture.

“All the young people have gone, but it’s not just them- I don’t have any friends left here at all,” she says. “I’m hoping to get all the family back here for New Year, but since the trains aren’t running, it’s difficult.”

Suzuki lives in Minami Soma, which catapulted into the headlines after the earthquake when its mayor, Katsunobu Sakurai, appealed for help via YouTube. Having suffered tsunami damage, the town also lost electricity and running water. Crippled trainlines and a chronic lack of petrol left  it almost completely cut off, with dwindling supplies of food, water and other daily necessities. To top it all off, Minami Soma was right in the middle of the 20-30km zone around the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, and residents were urged by the government to stay indoors.

Thousands left by choice – by August, 30,000 of the original 70,000 who lived in the town, had not returned.

To some extent, it looks like any semi-rural Japanese town. There’s the inevitable enormous pachinko parlours:

…old people playing golf…

… garishly coloured buildings…

… and quaint European aspirations.

Yet there are also signs of the triple catastrophe that rocked the town in March. In the centre of town there are but whispers, such as the dead sunflowers, planted in the hope that they might absorb radioactive particles:

Then there’s the white suits hanging in the windows:

And the closed McDonald’s, with an announcement stuck in the window to say that they have closed due to the nuclear incident, and won’t be reopening:

And then, towards the sea, the aftermath of the tsunami becomes more explicit. A handful of houses remain completely untouched:

…while others have been knocked down to their foundations, with flowers and alcohol placed on them as an offering to the dead:

School rucksacks still lie unclaimed:

About a kilometer from the coastline, the ground turns red. Everything that once existed there has been completely razed, with trucks still churning up the soil and clearing piles of debris:

But if there was a sharp contrast between the centre of the town and its edges, the attitudes of the people I met were even more opposed- ranging from the distrustful and scared to the assured and rational, and even completely unperturbed.

The town now finds itself in an ambiguous situation: atmospheric radiation levels are relatively low, with decontamination efforts well underway, but its young people have left, and signs of the nuclear threat are everywhere. I hear the same thing from everyone I speak to: “The young people have left. We want them to come back: children are the future.” But is Minami Soma the place to offer children a future?

Katsuhiko Murata and his wife think it could be, if detailed radiation maps were made available. Knowledge is power, they tell me. 「知識は力だよ」

“We don’t want these great big maps covering the whole prefecture or the whole of Eastern Japan,”  Mr. Murata said. “We need detailed, specific maps of Minami Soma, showing us where children can play, where they can live, where people should stay away from.”

Such a map hasn’t been made yet, although the Association to Help Chernobyl, Chubu District, has made a more detailed one than most:

Minami Soma radiation map, July 2011

As the Muratas pointed out, this map shows the arbitrariness of the 20 km exclusion zone. The areas with the highest concentration of radioactivity (in pink and orange) are outside of the zone- while some of the green and blue areas are within it. Rainfall, wind patterns and topographical features, such as valleys where rain can accumulate, have determined the radioactive contamination of the landscape, and as such it does not respect such tidy delineations.

For example: no difference was found between Toyoko Suzuki’s house and those of her neighbours inside the exclusion zone, but they were forced to leave and she was allowed to stay. This is bureaucratic rather than scientific logic. Both politically and practically, it’s easy to draw a straight line and simply force anyone on the wrong side of it to relocate- rather than go around banging on random doors 40, 50 km from the plant where hotspots are found.

In addition to criticising the government’s evacuation strategy, the Muratas were also scornful of the official decontamination efforts. They first approached me when I was taking photographs of an athletics field that was being sprayed down by men in hazmat suits:

Mr. Murata approached me to say: “Look at them. They’re doing it all wrong. You shouldn’t spray water on irradiated surfaces, it only spreads the particles around. We learnt that at the conferences.”

The Muratas, who run a car salesroom and an NGO they set up after the quake, have attended several international conferences in an attempt to inform themselves about the risks of radiation. They showed me the booklet from “Radiation and Health Risks,” an international symposium held in Fukushima city on September 11th-12th- and sure enough, underlined and in bold, it said “Try not to spread water around contaminated areas- it will disperse radioactive particles rather than removing them.”

Despite their lack of faith in official efforts, the Muratas were unusually confident that Fukushima land would be farmable within a few years, if not sooner. They pointed excitedly to fields that had been newly contaminated, right next to the exclusion border, and said they were not taking much care with where their food came from. Mrs. Murata in particular was emphatic that anyone who had a firm grasp of the scientific facts would not be worried. She gave several reasons for her optimism:

Firstly, decontamination can be extremely effective. The swimming pool at the nearby Kamima Elementary school had 38,000 becquerels per litre before being decontaminated with zeolite, a powder that absorbs cesium. It fell to just 44 becquerels per litre afterwards- “The children will be able to swim in it next summer,” Mrs. Murata said, smiling.

Secondly, the ratio of cesium 137 (half life of 30 years) to cesium 134 (half life of 2 years) was about 2:1 in Chernobyl, but is more like 2:7 in Fukushima. This means that much of the cesium will decay within just two years. Of course, half will still remain, as will the majority of cesium 137, but it will be significantly less than Chernobyl.

Thirdly, while children continued to drink milk around Chernobyl for a full two weeks, the Japanese government were at least fast to introduce bans on milk and green vegetables that were initially affected after the explosions at the plant. Figures from Chernobyl also showed that levels decreased considerably in just a few years- although mushrooms were found to have the highest levels, at around 18,000 becquerels/kg initially. I asked if she ate mushrooms and she looked horrified. “Of course not! But I do drink miso soup every day with mekabu,” she said, referring to a kind of seaweed that contains iodine, which is supposed to replace the radioactive iodine in the body.

The salesroom was covered with maps, graphs and pamphlets on radiation. Apparently many people were coming in for advice, knowing that the Muratas were keeping abreast of the scientific facts- but Mrs. Murata was beginning to despair of their ignorance.

“People around here are thick- you can see that just by looking at them,” she said, rolling her eyes and dropping her mouth open in an impression of ignorance. “We were so relieved to talk to people who knew what they were talking about at the conferences- but when we try and share what we learnt there with other people here, it doesn’t go in, they just worry and fret. They don’t get it.”

Considering the lack of absolute information, however, it might be reasonable for some to worry. One person who is distrustful of the statistics is Hideki Sugi, who works at a company that subcontracts nuclear workers, and has been to the plant several times. He is from Odaka, a town within the evacuation zone, but he fled to Niigata on the 12th when he saw TEPCO officials wearing overalls on the television.

“They knew what was going on then, well before the explosions. It was a sign- I tried to tell everyone around me to get out as quickly as they could, but there was no phone reception for me to reach everyone.”

Sugi is not only sceptical of everything TEPCO and the government have said- “It’s all lies, every single bit of it” – he’s furious that he had been exposed to a high level of internal radiation before he even entered the plant.

He was first checked on May 5th, when he was found to have a count of 6400; a normal level is between 200 and 400. A month later, his count had reached 10,000. He notes that TEPCO also “reset” levels for plant workers to 0 on March 31st, meaning that they could continue working in the plant despite probably being several times over the limit already. He said that people had died in the plant- contrary to official statements- but refused to elaborate further.

Sugi does not believe in official advice or numbers, and unlike the Muratas, remains unconvinced that Minami Soma is a safe place to live. Of his abandoned house in Odaka, he says:

“I want to go home, but I can’t. It’s not a place to live. It’s not that it’s definitely high-risk, it’s that we just don’t know whether it is or not.”

A jockey in his spare time, Sugi is pining for his horse, which has been sent to Hokkaido to be looked after by an NGO. He recently took part in a festival in Nihonbashi in Tokyo, with a horse from Fukushima. Before he was allowed to travel, however, it wasn’t just the horse that had to be checked with a Geiger counter- they wanted to know his radiation count, too.

“People back away when they hear where I’m from, as if they’re scared I’m going to contaminate them, too. It’s as if I’m not Japanese, like them, like I’m not human,” he said with disgust.

Others told me that they had been similarly discriminated against when they’d gone to evacuation centres outside of the prefecture. Ryoko Nemoto, a woman I met in a bar, said she had come back to Minami Soma simply because she was sick of that attitude, as well as the listless limbo of evacuee life.

Looking around Minami Soma, with its strikingly beautiful autumnal leaves and quaint shops, I began to understand why residents have come back, despite the purported risks. An old lady in the car salesroom told me she’d evacuated Tokyo during the firebombings in 1945 to come to Minami Soma, her mother’s hometown. “Why on earth would I want to go back to Tokyo now? The big city is good for nothing but making money. Now, the bombings were terrifying, but this is nothing. You can’t see it or feel it. And anyway, I’m old.”

That’s the problem, however, with the town: those who can afford not to worry too much are mostly old. I meet a few young people- notably a few young guys working in a fun izakaya called Tetsuya, where I went two nights in a row- as well as a 22 year old mother, Manami Ohashi, who gave birth to her third child just days before.

Apart from trying to stay indoors as much as possible while pregnant, Ohashi said she wasn’t concerned about what she ate or drank, and that she wasn’t especially worried about the threat to her children.

I also spoke to her gynaecologist, Kyohei Takahashi, who had branched out to general health checks and helped with decontamination efforts after the quake. Despite the conventional message that children were more vulnerable to radiation, Takahashi emphasised that their metabolisms were faster than that of adults, and much of the radioactive particles they take in pass through as waste. He added that mothers have little to worry about, but should take some care over the provenance of their food.

After speaking to the residents, I was less of the opinion that they were merely being foolhardy and stubborn to remain in Minami Soma. It’s particularly easy as a foreigner – having already parted from not only your home town, but your home country – to think that moving is easy, and staying not worth the risk. The images of deformed babies in Chernobyl etch themselves onto our eyelids, and we fear for consequences that might take 30 years to emerge. Nature takes on a new dimension, and we regard it with fresh suspicion. If you squint hard enough, you almost begin to hallucinate: it seethes and bristles with invisible particles that will destroy our DNA.

Yet many are on the side of the Muratas, who refuse to see radiation as something mystical, or something that can’t be vanquished with a careful wipe down or a sprinkle of zeolite. Radiation is, after all, just particles… right? Moreover, while I am not an apologist for the nuclear industry, it seems plausible that many deaths and illnesses after Chernobyl were caused by severe psychosomatic complexes caused by stress and paranoia.

And yet, as the film Land of Oblivion showed, radiation can seep through your body, leaving you infertile and making your hair come out in clumps. With less than clear statistics on exposure from that disaster, it sometimes feels like Japan is embarking on an enormous national experiment, the results of which will only be clear years from now.

2 responses to “Minami Soma.”

  1. Thank you for visiting Minamisoma.

    Earlier this month, I took my family and in-laws to Minamisoma, on the north edge of the exclusion zone around Fukushima Daiichi, to visit our relatives there. Needless to say, much of the conversation was about the accident. Our relatives run a 4-generation-old tofu making company. One cousin owns a tire dealership near Harunomachi Station.

    One big headache is what to do with probably radioactive debris, for example, used tires. All options are illegal.

    When rules are available, they follow them. For example, before we crossed the Iitate ghosttown, my cousin checked our car to be sure the vents were closed. But TEPCO and Tokyo have have been so slow to respond – and life must go on.

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