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Fleeing from Fukushima
Written by Shou Kamiya
Tranlated from Japanese by Craig White
* Please see Note by translater on the bottom for * and ** signs in the text.
Prologue – “Countdown”
July 6, 2011
Yanking the cabbage out of the planter, I found there was more dirt stuck to the root than I expected. It flew out and landed all over the place. I wanted to be neater about it; but perhaps because I was in a hurry, it was tough to be gentle.
One by one, I pulled out the vegetables I had been growing in the planter on the veranda.
Cabbages, leeks, shiso, avocados. The cabbages were in their first year, the leeks and shiso in their second. Despite being raised by an amateur, the cabbages were growing healthily, and I had looked forward to their harvest this year. I had been taking so much care in raising all of these vegetables, but my heart sank to think that I had to throw them out before they were ready for harvest.
I tossed the cabbage I pulled out into a trash bag and sighed loudly.
Looking up from the planter, I stretched out my back. There were five more planters left. I had to hurry.
If I couldn’t finish up all the pots and planters before day’s end, I wouldn’t be in time for the move the day after tomorrow.
For the planters that had been emptied, I turned them over and dumped the soil into another bag. In this area of Setagaya ward, it was necessary to have used gardening soil collected as bulky garbage. Dust flew up from inside the bag and spread out over the veranda. I jumped up and closed the veranda window, putting the mask* I had taken off back on and coughing into it. When I thought about how there was probably radiation seeped down into even this soil and dust, a chill ran down the back of my spine.
I looked out across the sky. Like yesterday, a cloudless blue spread over the city. Across from our veranda there were some train tracks. A Setagaya line train lumbered past, clinking and clanging. The train was packed, and I could see a good number of students on their way to school. I’d been 15 years in Setagaya, and not a thing about this landscape had changed.
I stayed put and watched the Setagaya line train until it disappeared.
“To end up leaving Setagaya for this sort of thing...” Speaking to myself, I let out another big sigh.
“Did you say something?”
to me.My wife, who was occupied with wrapping dishes in newspaper in the kitchen, called out
“I was just thinking that it doesn’t look like anything has changed, and yet...”
“Huh? I can’t hear you. What’s wrong?”
“Ah, it’s nothing. Just talking to myself.”
Careful not to get in the way of my wife’s work, my two daughters, ages 5 and 3, peeked out from their room to see how things are going.
I caught the gaze of Anzu, my oldest daughter.
“Daddy, are you working hard?” she asked with an innocent smile.
“I am. I’m working hard to pull out these cabbages.”
“What are you doing? If you don’t give them water, they’ll dry up.”
It seemed that my daughter, who saw watering the vegetables as her duty, was concerned about my unusual behavior on the veranda.
“You’re right, they have to be watered.”
“It’s ok. Because I’m going to water them!” She gave a little cheer and jumped back inside her room.
When I thought about my daughters, I heaved yet another sigh.
March 11th, 2011. An accident took place at the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant, managed by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO). The accident was caused by a massive earthquake and the resulting tsunami, a disaster collectively referred to as the Great East Japan Earthquake. Four nuclear reactors were hit, and hydrogen explosions occurred in three of those four. Furthermore, the reactor entered meltdown, which they say is the worst possible thing that can happen in a nuclear plant.
Immediately after the accident, the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant, the system which keeps the reactor cool having shut down, became superheated and began leaking nuclear fuel. The outer containers, meant to keep the raw nuclear energy harmful to humans contained and safe from the outside world, were being slowly melted by the leaked fuel. When something like this happens, no human can get close enough to do anything. This is what they call a nuclear meltdown.
What’s a “nuclear power plant”? A lot of people probably asked this when they learned about the accident. What happens when an accident occurs at a nuclear power plant? Just based on what you might have heard or seen secondhand, you could guess that it’s not anything you can be very optimistic about – but until this, nobody realized what it really signified.
From the beginning, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano repeatedly made statements such as, “There is no immediate threat to human health,” and “There is no immediate need for evacuation.” Even those whose instinct told them there might be danger simply stayed put and kept an eye on the situation.
However, as days, weeks, and months passed by, it became clear that the situation was bad. Bad enough that it was beginning to be taken notice of globally.
We began to hear terms like “microsieverts” and “becquerels,” and devices showed up that looked like they came straight out of a sci-fi movie, like the Geiger counter.
Among previous reactor accidents, even in what was considered the worst – Chernobyl – only one reactor had been involved. But in the case of Chernobyl, it’s said that they sent in two hundred thousand workers immediately following the accident and had the damage contained within 10 days. In contrast, at the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant, there were only about one thousand full-time workers assigned. Three months after the accident had occurred, the number of workers who had been involved in work at the plant was still only about ten to twenty thousand. Despite a strenuous effort, not only did the accident continue to be unresolved, problems which no one had ever experienced before – even the specialists – came up one after another.
On top of all this, the Fukushima accident caused large amounts of radiation to spread out not only over Fukushima but all the way to the Kantō region in the south as well – a range of
over 200 kilometers. The situation deteriorated into one where small children, including nursing infants, could not escape from the harmful effects of the radiation. A number of organizations, including those based overseas, presented evaluations which said that those afflicted would probably develop thyroid cancer after a few years.
“It seems as though not a thing in the world has changed, and yet...
I recalled a Fukushima farmer saying the same sort of thing as I had on an NHK** program shown two months after the accident. He was in a plastic greenhouse, pulling up his broccoli plants and throwing them away.
“What a shame,” the farmer said, clenching his teeth, as he threw out one plant after another. At that time, I simply thought, “It must be rough for him.” Now, I thought I could understand how the farmer felt. Painfully so. Even though my gardening was only a hobby, I thought that the feeling of carefully raising the plants and looking forward to the harvest was something we shared.
Pulling out the cabbages of another planter and throwing them into the trash bag, I told myself to hurry, move faster. The move was in two days, on July 8.
I finished pulling out all the vegetables before lunch. For the afternoon, I’d be packing up the contents of my workroom. I wrote the contents of each cardboard box on the outside with a marker. “Workroom – Important – Open Immediately.” In order to be able to start working right after the move, I attached a sticker too, to help the box stand out.
I’m a freelance writer who mainly writes for magazines, and also does planning and editing projects. So I work at home. I’ve been doing this for over ten years, and in every house I rent I allocate one room for my workspace.
“I’m leaving Tokyo to escape west.”
When I announced my intention to move on the Internet, I received varied reactions. Among those, the responses I received on Twitter included people debating the pros and the cons with me.
“I hope you’re able to move without any trouble”
“I think it’s best to get as far away from Tokyo as possible”
With messages like this, there were many people who agreed with and encouraged my decision to move. At the same time, I received these sorts of messages:
“You can leave Tokyo easily because you’re a freelancer. A company worker like me and my family, it’s impossible”
“You probably have some freedom because you’re doing that sort of writing work. Even if we wanted to, our family doesn’t have the money to move”
These people seemed to be projecting their own frustrations on me. In addition, for some reason, others scoffed at my decision and tried to change my mind.
“Moving is an overreaction. You’re worrying too much. Moving is going to strain your household budget, giving you excessive stress which will have a bigger impact (than the radiation). I recommend staying where you are”
Everyone has their own circumstances, environment, and way of life. So for those who want to escape from the radiation, realistically speaking there are those who can, and those who can’t. There also seemed to be a thousand different opinions on what the threshold was for a “safe” amount of radiation and a “dangerous” one. Stay, or leave – it wasn’t an easy decision.
To tell the truth, I actually wanted to move much sooner. When I understood that the radiation from the nuclear power plant was reaching all the way to Tokyo, I thought first and foremost of my children’s health and future. I wanted to move immediately.
Towards the end of April, when I heard that many times more radiation than that at Chernobyl was leaking out of the reactor, I knew there was no time for hesitation. At the same
time, moving requires a certain amount of capital. When you’re talking about moving a family of four, it’s not going to go as smoothly as moving by yourself.
For our family, who relies on my work writing and editing, there is no stable source of income. I’m not like a businessman whose salary is set at the same amount every month. Furthermore, when I write articles or gather material for monthly or weekly magazines, it’s not unusual that I don’t know how much I earned until the article is published and the magazines sold, at which point my pay is deposited into my bank account. So it’s impossible for me to make a plan in which, for example, I save ¥10,000 each month from the next three months’ salary.
All through May and June, we continued to barely scrape by. Since I also had a desktop computer, I decided to sell my beloved laptop secondhand. But even that wasn’t enough – I had to put a camera in a pawn shop too. By doing these sorts of things I was able to keep food on the table.
So even though I wanted to escape the radiation and move west as soon as possible, I wasn’t able to do it immediately. But at the same time, even while barely getting by at home, I never gave up on my decision to move.
Then, at the beginning of June, I found out that my pay from the book I worked on which was published in May would be given to me at the beginning of July. It was like seeing a ray of sunlight breaking through the clouds.
Of course, with the new lease, moving fees, bulky garbage removal fees and transportation costs for a family of four, that money would disappear as soon as we moved. Even so, I knew that it was now or never. As long as we could move now, everything else would come together somehow. As long as I could ensure my family’s health, I knew we’d be able to get along all right.
For me, it seemed like continuing to live in Tokyo in fear of radiation every day was akin to holding my family hostage. The anxiety over our daily food, my daughters’ safety at their kindergarten, the increased possibility of another accident at the nuclear plant, the big earthquake in the southeastern sea they say is coming – whatever I chose to do, I felt like as long as that anxiety for my family was somewhere in my heart, it was only a matter of time before the stress broke me down. To avoid that, I had to get away from this place.
To escape the radiation, I had to leave Tokyo behind and move to a place where my family could live in safety. I knew that now was my only chance to do that.
My wife, who had finished packing up the kitchen area, was now carefully cleaning the refrigerator. We wanted to avoid bringing radiation with us from Tokyo to our new home. So she took time and went over it again and again, very thoroughly.
We decided to throw away the cleaning cloths after one wipe – we didn’t want to risk transferring radiation to other appliances or furniture.
“How many times is that?” I asked.
“Hmm, maybe three. I think it should be fine after this much wiping, but...” “It’d be nice if radiation was something we could see.”
“If it was, I think Tokyo would really be in a panic right now.”
“That’s for sure.”
We had decided to take some of our recently-bought electric appliances, like the refrigerator and microwave, with us to our new home. Buying everything new would be expensive. That’s why my wife was taking her time to wipe down all the appliances we were bringing with us.
What gave me grief in particular were the things I was using in my workroom, like the rug or the sofa. They weren’t particularly expensive, but they were both items I had bought in the excitement of moving to this home two years ago. The sofa, I had fallen in love with after seeing it in an antique shop. I especially liked the red color of the fabric, and the feeling of the antiquated wooden armrests.
But apparently it’s easier for radiation to stick to fabric or cloth items like these. I very carefully vacuumed them, and wiped down the parts that could be wiped; but after talking to my wife and gathering opinions on Twitter, I decided that it was risky and ended up throwing out both of them. After coming to that decision, I ended up throwing out anything that seemed easy for radiation to stick to, even if there was only a doubt. One after another we tossed out our belongings.
My two daughters helped prepare to move by putting their toys and stuffed animals into a big cardboard box. But as they noticed that some of the stuffed animals they always played with were missing, they would call out, “It’s not there! Where is it??” and turn over the box they had just finished filling up to search for the missing one. Then my wife would warn them, “If you don’t hurry up, we’re going to have to leave everything behind,” and they would begin packing the box again. This scenario repeated itself a few times.
We had thrown out close to half of our daughters’ toys and stuffed animals. After the accident in Fukushima, we had been putting their stuffed animals into the closet to keep the girls from playing with them. But, thinking that radiation had probably seeped into the closet as well, we had been taking things like stuffed bunnies and anime characters and putting them into the garbage while our daughters slept. Many of those we threw out had been our daughters’ favorites, but we had no other choice.
The futons and other blankets and linens in the closet met the same fate. If it was a futon for guests that we kept in a cover and had never used, my wife wiped it down like the refrigerator and put it with the items to take with us; but we threw out all of the bed materials we were using on a daily basis.
By trying to avoid taking any radiation with us like this, the amount of bulky garbage we were throwing out piled up considerably. When I looked at all that we had thrown out lying in the parking lot next to our house, I felt like soon, I would be freed from this anxiety over radiation which hadn’t left me once since the disaster. We would cast off our worries and leave
them behind with Tokyo. When I thought about it like that, the sense of relief from throwing out the radiation and escaping Tokyo overcame any sadness from having to leave behind our beloved possessions.
In the evening, as we were taking a break from moving preparations, a deliveryman from the Yamato Transport Company came with a package.
“So you’ll be leaving soon, huh?”
Mr. Akamine asked, his tan, healthy face covered with a big smile. In charge of the Wakabayashi area of Setagaya ward for quite some time, he was a hard worker who, despite extreme heat or heavy rain, always delivered packages without once breaking that smile. Oftentimes when he came by, we would spend a bit of time on some trivial bit of small talk, and we had come to know each other pretty well.
“Yeah, we’re moving the day after tomorrow.”
“Have we known each other for 10 years now?”
“Before we moved to this place we were here for 13 years, so all together it’s been about 15. Thanks for always bringing our packages, even when we made impossible requests at the last minute.”
“Of course. That’s my job. I remember when you first came here as a single man, I would visit in the morning to find you exhausted from staying up all night, or dizzy with a hangover; but now you’ve got a family of four. You really look like a father now.”
“After having kids and adjusting my schedule to be with them, it became impossible for me to have hangovers or stay up all night. You yourself got married and had kids, and now you’re quite the father yourself, right?”
I signed the slip for the package and handed it over to Mr. Akamine.
“Well then, give my regards to the Yamato company out west too,”
he said, and like always, gave a bow and bounded lightly down the stairs.
I watched him from the second floor as he left. I hesitated as I wondered if I should say something to him.
I had never talked about why I was really moving with Mr. Akamine. I had told the neighbors, and even the women who run the restaurants in my favorite shopping district that I was “escaping the radiation,” but I couldn’t say that to Mr. Akamine. Even when I was trying to avoid going out as much as possible, afraid of the radiation, he spent his entire day running around outside delivering packages. The reason I could stay shut up in my home was because of people like Mr. Akamine, working even as radiation rained down over the city. I couldn’t look someone like that in the face and tell them I was running away.
In turn, Mr. Akamine never asked me the reason for the move. He probably knew what it was. That’s what kept him from asking, I think. He also has a family. He surely shares my anxiety over radiation.
I was leaving Tokyo to escape from the radiation. Mr. Akamine would continue delivering packages. His family probably worried for him every day.
I had to respect how Mr. Akamine continued to do his job, fulfilling his duty as a member of society. As for my own cowardice in choosing to run away from Tokyo, I felt ashamed.
The Yamato truck drove away as I watched. I looked out once again over our neighborhood from the front of the house. The sun was setting, and the shadows were growing
If there just wasn’t any radiation, I could continue living here, devoting myself to my work like Mr. Akamine. But now, after knowing what it is to fear radiation, I couldn’t live like I did before 3/11.
No one is there to protect my children but my wife and I. If I stayed in Tokyo, my daughters had no choice but to stay as well. If something were to happen to my daughters’ health a few years from now due to the radiation, there’s no doubt in my mind they would ask me, “Daddy, why didn’t you leave Tokyo?” They might write about their suffering in their diary or on their blog, keeping it a secret from me. Then someday, when I find out what’s been in their hearts, I would lament and agonize over my decision.
The simple question of a pure and innocent child, a babe free from the fetter of employment, the bonds of society, would pierce my heart. It might be dramatic to say, but years down the road, if some irreversible damage were to occur to my daughters’ bodies, I’m not sure how I would go on living. If that happened, no matter how much I threaten or pressure the government or TEPCO, my daughters’ health would never return.
After learning to fear the radiation, we kept our windows closed and dried our laundry inside. Even though we had stopped letting our daughters play outside, and told them they were only allowed to play indoors, the kindergarten continued to have them play outdoors day after day. We pulled them out. We took care not to buy any food from the Kantō or Tōhoku regions, and always put on masks when we went outside. When we came home, we dusted ourselves off before coming in. We bought a Daikin brand air cleaner meant for office use and kept it going all day long. For water, we exclusively used “Treasure Springs” bottled water from the Kyūshū region, or took it from the water produced by a “reverse osmosis filter” set up in Summit (a grocery store). The reverse osmosis filter is a machine developed by the U.S. Defense Department that is supposed to make any water clean and drinkable. It’s not a miracle machine, but it’s supposed to be effective at filtering out iodine in radiation released from a nuclear reactor. When people began to talk about how the city water in radiation-covered Tokyo was dangerous, an acquaintance working as a chef at a French restaurant told us about the machine.
The reverse osmosis filter was a bit too expensive for us to buy our own, but after finding out that there was one in our neighborhood grocery store, we went every day to take anywhere from four to six liters for drinking. Because taking baths requires a lot of water, we had no choice but to use city water. We decided to just limit ourselves to spending as little time as possible in the bath. It was extremely stressful whenever we had to bathe our daughters.
In this way, we led an everyday lifestyle that even we ourselves thought was abnormal.
I have a cowardly disposition. But, at this time, I thought it was ok to be a coward. I didn’t even mind being called weird. I didn’t care if I was ridiculed for throwing off my social obligations and thinking only of what I could personally gain or lose. I wanted to make moving my family far away from the radiation my first priority. At that time, that was enough. Later on, when my daughters are able to understand the terror of radiation, of what happened on 3/11, it’s enough if they understand that me and my wife thought of their future first and left Tokyo behind. No matter what happens over the coming years, at the least, I want to let my daughters know that we thought of them and did everything we could for their sakes.
Note by translater
* In Japan, people wear masks covering the mouth and nose when they’ve caught a cold or other illness. It keeps germs from coughing and sneezing from spreading out into the air, and also provides a buffer against viruses from other people.
**A public broadcast station funded by subscription fees (viewer fees) collected from the citizenry.
The second half of prologue of Feeling from Fukushima is available as a PDF file for free download here.
Fleeing from Fukushima (original Japanese title Genpatsu Hikkoshi )
First printed on April 6, 2012
Written by: Shō Kamihara Published by: Shō Kamihara
Translated from Japanese by: Craig White
Printed by Print On Inc.
1592-23 Hirosaki, Masunari-cho, Kami-masunari-gun Kumamoto-ken, JAPAN
URL: http://www.genpatsu-hikkoshi.info Twitter: @shoukamihara
© Shō Kamihara 2012 Printed in Japan