JQ Magazine: Fear and Traveling in Fukushima

At scenic Setogaro Gorge in Iwaki, fifth year JET Peter Gillam says people are not seeing Fukushima for everything it is. “What people need to know most about Fukushima is that it is a prefecture first, a city second, and a nuclear reactor a distant third,” he says. “Not the other way around.”

Who’s telling the truth about radiation in Japan, and why it might not matter anyway.

By James A. Foley  (Fukushima-ken, 2007-10) for JQ magazine. James was one of eight American JET alums selected for the Tohoku Invitational Program sponsored by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Japan Tourism Agency.

Nastassja Vidro knew something was awfully wrong when the March air turned yellow.

It happened while she was outside on the playground with the eight students she taught English to at Shiramizu Elementary in Iwaki City, Japan, after the earth began to move.

Vidro, a 2007-2011 JET participant, was by then an old pro at earthquakes. She had lived in seismically active Japan nearly four years, and in California for more than two decades before that. But this quake was different. The earth rocked so violently that huge clouds of pollen erupted from the trees and hung in the air, casting the scene in an eerie hue.

The school principal ran outside, telling everyone to get in the center of the schoolyard and huddle together. Crouched on the ground with her students, Vidro kept waiting for the tremor to subside, but it went on. For six minutes.

She heard a fantastic noise—“like a monster roaring, not screeching, but deep, [and] I could hear the wood creak and bend and the earth move”—and ceramic shingles rattling off neighboring houses and shattering on the pavement.

She says she felt the ground quiver beneath her. She fixated on it, amazed.

“My hands were on the ground and the movement was pushing them off,” she says. “I’m not a very religious person, but I was praying so hard. I hoped the earth didn’t crack.”

She looked toward a fellow teacher, a Japan native, whose eyes were wide.

“I could see in her face that this was bad, that it was not an average earthquake,” she says.

It was 2:46 p.m. on March 11, 2011, when a 9.0 shocker, the strongest ever recorded in Japan’s long and very quaky history, rattled the nation and sent a monster tsunami flying towards the coastal sections of the eastern Tohoku region.

There were reports that people screamed “Hajimeta! Hajimeta!” as the earth shook—“It’s begun! It’s begun!”—a harrowing acknowledgment that The Big One had arrived, setting off a chain of events that killed 15,850 people, left thousands more unaccounted for, and sent parts of at least one aging nuclear reactor into a fearsome meltdown, causing the mandatory evacuation of a 30 kilometer radius around the beleaguered reactor. The entire event displaced more than 200,000 people. On television and the Internet, the whole world watched in shock and awe. For any of us with a connection to Japan, all we could do on March 11 was feel terrible.

For me, I was at my grandmother’s house near Seattle. When I first heard of the news, I immediately went online to see the situation in my old home. Like Nastassja Vidro, I also lived in Iwaki, the largest city in Fukushima prefecture, for years as a JET participant. Facebook posts informed me that all of my people in Iwaki were shaken, but safe from danger. I spent the rest of the day alternating between watching CNN coverage of the disaster with my mouth agape, and dry heaving into the toilet. I barely missed the quake myself. I was in Fukushima only two months prior to the disaster, on the tail end of an around-the-world backpacking trip. Seeing Japan and Fukushima so badly wounded made me distraught, especially because Iwaki was the last place I could ever really call home.

***

Six months after the disaster struck, on a not-very-high-up floor of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) in Tokyo, an office lady quietly places three cups of cold mugi cha, or barley tea, on a table in a conference room. The walls of the conference room are lined with bookcases containing various reference books and guide books about Japan written in several major world languages. The September morning is sunny and humid, blue sky all around. The conference room is not much more comfortable than outside; the standard Japanese office is air conditioned to a degree only slightly more pleasant than suffocating.

Sitting at the table are two men wearing “cool biz” attire: short sleeved dress shirts tucked into black slacks, no ties, each man with a handkerchief in their pocket to mop up errant sweat. One of the men is Fumihiro Kawakami, director of the Foreign Exchange Division of MOFA. His subordinate Hisashi Ueno sits next to him explaining something to a third man, a sweaty foreigner sitting across from them who apparently never got the memo about dressing down for the meeting.

Mr. Ueno says to the foreigner that tourism had fallen in Japan since March. In Fukushima he said tourism was down 60 percent. The decline in tourism was no surprise considering the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor and all of its safety mechanisms were overcome by the tsunami, causing parts of the reactor to meltdown, spewing enough radiation into the environment to make it the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.

Half a year onward, recovery efforts were well under way. In Tokyo it was nearly impossible to tell that anything had ever gone wrong. But ever since the March 11 disaster, Mr. Ueno says, people were not keen on traveling to Japan, especially to Fukushima.

The foreigner wearing the wool sweater and gulping mugi cha to cool down is me, your correspondent, the itinerant journalist with the poorly considered wardrobe.

Mr. Ueno asks me to engage the media about my time in the country. “Please tell people it’s safe to come to Japan,” he says. Mr. Kawakami, the most senior man at the table, stood up, bowed, and excused himself from the room. Mr. Ueno continued discussing possible ways to engage the media until an agent from the Japan Travel Bureau, Mr. Hiroyasu Amano, was escorted into the conference room.

After some obligatory bows and exchanging of business cards, Mr. Amano explains to me the procedures necessary to get reimbursed for food, travel and accommodation expenses. The organizations these two men represent picked up the tab for me to come to Japan. They did not pay me to write anything. However, I was expected to engage traditional and social media about my trip to Japan, and the engagement was, no doubt, intended to be a positive one.

The greater context here is worth mentioning, because it explains a lot about what a guy like me is doing in Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and why these bureaucrats are asking for my assistance.

In July, MOFA, in conjunction with JTB, invited former participants of the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program to come to Japan for one week. JET is a government-funded international exchange program that mostly arranges for native English speakers to live in Japan and teach English in the public school system.

The official name for the paid week in Japan is the Tohoku Invitation Program (TIP). Twenty people in the world were selected to participate on TIP. Each of the participants were JETs who had lived in a disaster-afflicted region of Tohoku for at least two years.

As a JET, I taught at four Iwaki elementary schools from 2007 to 2010. My new role as a TIP correspondent was to inform people about Fukushima. I agreed to utilize social media and blogs to publicize my return to Iwaki. This article too, is a manifestation of TIP.

I had my reservations about TIP. I saw it as a thinly veiled positive public relations campaign, and I was willingly, knowingly, swept up in it. (How do you say no to a free trip to Japan?) But I’m no expert on nuclear anything. Mr. Ueno had seen my credentials and was involved in my selection as a TIP participant. He knew I had exactly zero scientific authority to tell people it is safe to travel to Japan. But he also knew of my occupation, and that I would do my best to report the facts.

I left the MOFA headquarters with an official assignment: to travel back to my old home, to reconnect with old friends and colleagues and to see with my own eyes what had become of Fukushima.

***

Cold pints of Kirin and bottles of sake move around low-lying dinner tables covered with plates of fried octopus, bowls of rice, salted edamame and bits of raw fish. Debaucherous karaoke sessions follow before a stumble home in the sunrise.

Moments like these—and evenings spent laughing through a haze of cigarette smoke at the local curry house Purnima—defined a lot of my nights in Iwaki.

Iwaki is a city of modest population along the Pacific Ocean that attracts visitors with its natural beauty. The area around the downtown train station is made of neon lights and mystery bars, but it’s flanked by rolling green mountains and prominent farmland that gives the old coal mining town a down-home rural edge.

Upon my arrival at Narita International Airport in Tokyo, I disclosed my travel plans to immigration officers. When I told them where I planned to go, one looked dumbfounded.

“You can’t go to Fukushima,” he says. “It’s dangerous.” The other expressed only mild concern and thought I would be all right in Iwaki. I found that tenuous balance, between freaked out and just fine, one that resonated whenever Fukushima came into the conversation.

When I got off the train at Iwaki station, I immediately planned visits to my old schools, the same places where kids with Pokémon pencil cases would often be more interested in the hair on my arms or how big my feet were than in the song and game-filled English lessons I brought to class.

The schools were in session; the kids were learning and playing and carrying on normally. But the schools’ swimming pool, which by September was usually full of kids in uniform bathing suits learning to swim, sat stagnant and untended. The murky water was potentially exposed to radiation from the blown-out reactor about 30 miles to the north. Nobody could swim in the pool and no one knew what to do with the water.

My old neighborhood escaped the tsunami. There was little earthquake damage to the area. Only blue tarpaulins covering the occasional broken roof, or a yet-to-be-repaired spot of busted pavement acted as a reference to the disaster. But a 15-minute drive to the tsunami-ravaged coast revealed whole communities erased by the wave. Driving north, toward the boundary of the nuclear exclusion zone, revealed deserted and forsaken land, nuclear ghost towns.

The saddest thing to see was the rice paddies. Once so immaculately maintained by proud rice farmers—every bowl of rice on Japan’s tables is grown domestically, and the crop commands a high price—many fields were left untended, growing wild and perhaps irradiated.

But back on the playground at Taira First Elementary, where I taught English, kids in dark green sweatsuits hurled dodgeballs at one another. Inside, students practiced writing their kanji.

I detected no quake damage to the campus. But the vice principal was keen to show me his new dosimeter, used to take daily radiation measurements around campus. On another campus nearby, a corner of the playground was roped off due to radiation.

The faculty I spoke with at Taira First was cautious but not worried about radiation. The children seemed unconcerned. In the main corridor of the school, a small group of students clustered around me. I addressed them individually, greeting them with easy English like “how are you” and “long time no see.” One boy retorted, “It’s not ‘long time no see,’” in Japanese. “This is the first time we’ve ever met.”

The kid was right. Most of the schools in Iwaki took in evacuees from places destroyed by the tsunami or contaminated by radiation. This boy was one of the several hundred evacuees relocated to Iwaki’s central Taira district.

Later that day I saw a Japanese news article stating Iwaki City’s radiation levels were some of the lowest in Fukushima prefecture. But before I left for Japan and after I returned, many commented about my possible exposure to radiation.

Surprisingly, I would learn there was less to be worried about than those friends thought. And that would be just one of the many lessons―some more surprising, others less so―to follow me home from my return to Japan.

***

In October, the New Yorker magazine published an evenhanded piece on the nuclear situation in Japan. The article referenced a poll showing that more than 80 percent of the Japanese population did not believe the government’s information about the nuclear crisis. In an official English translation of a January 4 speech by Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda on his ministry’s 2012 outlook, Noda said the three most pressing issues for Japan in the coming year are “the recovery and reconstruction from the Great East Japan Earthquake, the conclusion of the nuclear accident, and the revitalization of the Japanese economy.”

Noda went on to outline in his speech how he intended to address the three issues, though he spent only a brief time discussing anything nuclear. At the end of the speech, Noda took questions from seven journalists. One journalist, a reporter from the Associated Press identified as Mr. Foster, asked Noda about the nuclear situation and the government’s transparency and credibility. According to the transcript, Mr. Foster said that he felt people had a “deep sense of distrust about the Japanese Government’s responses towards the Fukushima nuclear power station accident and its lack of transparency in information and communication delivering as well as the confusion the Government has caused.”

Mr. Noda recognized the criticism and acknowledged the government “failed to disclose clear and accurate information properly in a timely manner about the nuclear accident issues in Fukushima and the entire issues on the Great East Japan Earthquake.” He went on to say that his ministry would continue to reflect on how it handled the situation and continue to better transparency. “I think it is one of the most important basics that we will keep informing people by disclosing the status of the nuclear power stations. I resolve once again to carry out this basic stance,” Mr. Noda said.

The rest of the journalists asked Prime Minister Noda about issues concerning Japan’s economy, elections, or inter-government workings.

That only one of seven reporters asked Japan’s head of state anything about the nuclear situation opens doors to all sorts of speculation. Perhaps the Western journalist was the only one there with nothing to lose for asking a tough question. Or maybe the ratio could be interpreted as a reflection of overall public sentiment. Maybe this whole nuclear thing is just one of countless realities that the Japanese government and people now have to dwell on.

Now, a year since the disaster, it seems people are just trying to get on as they did before the disaster.

***

Ryan Nagle, 29, an American artist and teacher, lives in Tokyo with his Japanese wife and their daughter. He met his wife in Iwaki City while participating on JET from 2006 to 2010. His wife’s family owns a small macrobiotic cafe and market there. Nagle says his is in-laws are hesitant for them to bring their infant daughter to visit Iwaki, despite the city being outside the exclusion zone. However, his wife feels it is safe enough take their daughter to visit family in Iwaki, he says.

Nagle says the nuclear issue has been “squelched” in the Japanese media and that life is going along quite normally. “Not to say it’s not a major topic. But you know, SMAP is on tour, and Arashi has a funny TV show, and so-and-so is getting married, and [my daughter] likes to put things in her mouth, and it’s just sort of fallen off the radar.

“When the nuclear issue is discussed, at least in the media I am exposed to, it’s that same old ‘If we try hard enough we can overcome, do your best! Japan is number one!’ sort of shit. Sometimes there’s a dour TV show that makes you wanna change the channel, but it has fallen into the background. That is the summary of my feeling; it has fallen into the background,” Nagle says.

His anecdotal evidence is supported by Mark Hiratsuka, editor at CNNGo Tokyo, a travel site under the CNN umbrella, who says that his site is “focusing on the positives of travel in Japan” as the one-year anniversary of March 11 nears.

One long-term Fukushima resident, John Loynes, 33, says he would not still be living there if he thought it was not safe. Loynes, from Cumbria in the UK, participated on JET from 2000 to 2005 in Iwaki City. He never left. Now, 12 years later, Loynes has a wife and two boys and a new house in Iwaki’s countryside. He says that despite the hardships in the aftermath of the quake, life is now calm and normal. The English conversation school he owns and operates has more students than ever, he says. When asked about any concerns over radiation, Loynes says he feels safe based on the information he receives. “Just comparing the numbers, there are places in England there where natural background radiation is higher than it is here,” he explains.

Yet it’s easy to find a dissenting base. Often sensational media coverage and a dearth of confusing information at the onset of the nuclear incident has convinced many that the nuclear situation in Japan is grim, and that the Tokyo Electric Power Company and the government are covering up the truth. Laments one anonymous commenter on a blog that translates Japanese news to English: “The major newspapers and media are controlled by TEPCO…the Japanese Government depends on TEPCO…TEPCO owns Japan, Japanese citizens, and Japan´s history…”

Scaremongers cried nuclear wolf and the Internet howled back. Enenews.com, a website known for its sensationalism, often spouts heated nuclear rhetoric, even claiming the government kept a radiation survey of Iwaki children a secret. Some people are convinced the severity of the Fukushima incident is being covered up by TEPCO and the government. Helen Caldicott, an Australian physician known for her adamant anti-nuke views, announced in the wake of the disaster that the radiation released will significantly add to instances of cancer around the world. However, other experts, like Wade Allison, professor emeritus of physics at Oxford University, contend that the Fukushima incident has caused no loss of life and won’t, even in the next 50 years.

With a portion of Fukushima declared a quarantine zone, the results took on a painfully self-fulfilling aspect: Nobody was actually dying there from radiation, but since misplaced fears were keeping people from visiting, the place is on pace to die economically. As Allison told the UK Guardian, “The voices of science and common sense on which the future of mankind depends were drowned out and remain to be heard, even today. The result has been unnecessary suffering and great socio-economic damage.”

On the other side of the Pacific Ocean, Ferenc Dalnoki-Veress, a nuclear physicist at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California, says levels of radioactivity recorded around Fukushima are “not that high” and that the radiation a traveler would be exposed to on a weeklong trip to Fukushima would be lower than the average dose of radiation a person would receive on an intercontinental flight, which is low; a roundtrip flight from L.A. to New York will expose a traveler to less radiation than a chest X-ray.

The good news is that a trip to Japan, even to Fukushima, is unlikely to cause any real harm to your health. The bad news: you might end up dying of cancer anyway. Any of us living in an industrialized nation already have high odds of this happening. In Japan those odds are already one in three; for the U.S. it’s one in four for men and one in five for women. We live in a radioactive world, more so now than ever. Every time we have an X-ray or eat a banana, we are exposed to low doses of radiation. Genetics, diet, lifestyle and access to healthcare all play a role as well. And as cancer victims in class action lawsuits know all too well, when it comes to cancer, it is very difficult to prove causality.

***

Dan Legare, 24, a Canadian from New Brunswick, came to Iwaki as an English teacher for JET in 2010. He now teaches at Taira Third Elementary, another of my old schools. I met with Legare after work one day last September. We agreed a bicycle ride through town was the best way to spend the afternoon. Cruising down the riverside path in lingering sunlight was nostalgic and it struck me as a perfect opportunity to visit my secret place, a hidden shrine up in the hills.

We rode past urban farmland and Japanese block apartments. Some signs on the road seemed to caution us about something, but neither of us paid them much attention. Not long after we began our ascent of the hill, we came upon a landslide which blocked the road in either direction, no doubt a result of the earthquake. Had we been driving a car, the road would have been unnavigable, but we carried our cycles over the debris and kept riding uphill. The road was devoid of cars and people (in retrospect, those signs downhill were probably meant to indicate that we shouldn’t have been there), which gave the journey an air of abandoned and mischievous quality.

Not much daylight was left, but what remained was perfect. Rays of sunlight sporadically broke through the forest canopy in eye-catching bursts. All we could hear was slight wind rustling through leaves and crepuscular noises.

We reached our destination: a graveyard along the steep hillside. We put the bikes down in the dirt and made our way to a trail leading up to overlook the graveyard. Our ascent up the footpath was guided by stones set into the earth. Everything was covered in moss. In summer months the forest is occupied by thousands of huge spiders, their expansive webs glinting in the sunlight. We used a fallen tree limb to clear the massive webs from our path. The whole scene was reminiscent of an Indiana Jones film.

On the way up we spotted a few mushrooms growing wild beside the tree trunks.

The hike uphill is rewarding because you have to work for it, but also surprisingly pleasant because as you ascend through the thick forest and slip over mossy rocks and begin to think you’ve gotten yourself into more of a journey than you bargained for—as soon as you arrive at the thought—you reach the end of the path.

Before us was a small embankment occupied by an old Shinto shrine. A dead shrine, barely standing, in a state of disrepair. It’s my secret place. To my knowledge, it’s always been in ruins. But the earthquake exacerbated the dead shrine’s decay. The ground was covered with shattered pieces of ceramic tile shaken off the roof. A pair of stone lanterns typical to a Shinto shrine have toppled to the ground as well. The only evidence that anyone besides us have been here since the quake is a blue tarpaulin hastily strung across a hole in the dead shrine’s roof.

Back when I lived in Iwaki I would occasionally visit the dead shrine for a bit of exercise, or sometimes just to be alone and think. And whenever I visited, the environment would always strike me as hauntingly perfect: a dead shrine in the overgrown forest above a graveyard. The idea of the shrine, left to die in the forest, released back to the gods from whence it came—it always evoked in me some refection on life and death. At the time, autumn had yet to fall, and the forest was still alive and green. But the shrine now, after the quake, seemed deader than ever. I paused for a moment and wondered how many more spirits were entombed in the graveyard below as a result of March 11.

Tens of thousands were killed as a direct result of the earthquake and tsunami. In Iwaki nearly 300 were killed, many of them in the borough of Toyama, which was obliterated by the tsunami. It’s sad to think how their loss became so easily eclipsed in the wake of the nuclear incident. The stories of life and loss should be more compelling than the nuclear angle. The health of the workers dedicated to clearing up the nuclear mess will undoubtedly be affected somehow. But for the average person in Fukushima, the radiation exposure most have received falls into the “low dose” range, where the effect on cancer remains unclear.

Is it safe to travel to Japan, even to Fukushima?

I think it is. But I have my own biases and influences and my opinion is merely that. It comes down to being an individual decision, based on your trust and literacy in the information available, the health of you and your family, and your acceptance of death as fact.

Japan remains a beautiful and inspiring place, and Fukushima—especially now in its nuclear aftermath— is a fascinating part of the country worth paying attention to, and learning from. Everything will die, just like the hidden shrine one the hillside, and just like all those put to rest in the graveyard below. The beauty of it is that we never know when or how we will die. We just know that one day we will.

Daylight was waning, and we had to get down before nightfall. We started hiking back to our bicycles downhill. On the path we again saw some mushrooms growing at the base of a tree. Maybe they were irradiated. We’ll never know.

Visit James’s blog at www.jamesafoley.com.