I visited Fukushima on July 15 and August 3 (also visiting the southern part of Miyagi Prefecture on my first trip). I put together this column by adding information and making corrections to tweets I made on Twitter during those two trips.
I’m off to Fukushima! I’ll be taking the Tohoku Shinkansen (bullet train) from JR Tokyo station to JR Fukushima station. From there, I’ll travel to the Iino district of Fukushima City by rental car. Iino is where the temporary office of Iitate Village is located. (Iidate village has become well known as all the residents were be-latedly asked to be evacuated a few months after 311).
I met the chief of Iitate Village in Iino, Fukushima City. He was a person of great integrity. “I wonder if we really needed to evacuate all the residents by force,” the chief said to me. “I could only see this as the central government’s attempt at self-protection. Policy is moving toward increasing compensation. The sense of community is the most important thing for us.” Those words gave me a glimpse at the troubles he was facing in doing his best to hold a community together. Forced full-scale evacuation endangered his village’s survival. I made donations and left Iino for Iitate.
I drove the rental car over a mountain pass to reach Iitate Village. Green trees mirrored the early summer sunlight along the way, and the car entered the village. I saw farmers working in the field, but houses with closed curtains showed no sign of life. The village, meanwhile, had heavy motor traffic. I worried about the possibility of burglary in these conditions.
I paid a study visit to Iiitate’s Demonstration Park for Radioactive Substance Elimination Technology. Sunflowers are used there for absorbing cesium and other radioactive substances. I heard that the Minister of agriculture, forestry and fisheries visited the park to sow seeds. The weather was clear and the park was beautiful with lush natural vegetation.
After passing a Komeri do-it-yourself store and a Co-op supermarket, both shuttered, I drove to a home for the elderly who need special care, which was next to the Iitate Village Office. Residents of this facility have not evacuated. I saw many cars in the parking lot and desk staff in the building. I thought of voicing thanks for their hard work, but I refrained since such actions could seem suspicious. I chose to thank them non-verbally, in my heart.
I crossed the Yagisawa Pass and drove into the Haramachi section of Minami Soma City. This area was within the 30-kilometer radius of the nuclear power plant. I had lunch at a local restaurant called Poplar that serves Western-style food. Local people, adults and children, were enjoying some peaceful time there as usual. Then it was time for my appointment to meet the city’s mayor.
At the Minami Soma City Office I met Mayor Katsunobu Sakurai, who had the air of a gentle, warm-hearted father. “We want to reopen our schools,” he explained to me. “But we don’t know what to do because the central government’s policy hasn’t been clear.” Both the mayor of Minami Soma and the chief of Iitate told me the atmosphere changed after the government established a “schoolyard radioactive dose of up to 20 millisieverts [mSv] per year” as the criterion for a school reopening, and a Cabinet consultant made a tearful appeal during his resignation, saying, “The criterion must be 1 mSv a year.” This is the normal radiation level around the world. But the statement made by the departing Cabinet consultant gave Fukushima residents unnecessary strong awareness about radioactive doses. I said goodbye to Mayor Sakurai after promising to give a small donation.
From the Minami Soma City Office, I traveled National Route 6 south and reached the edge of the 20-kilometer radius from the nuclear power plant. People who appeared to be police officers were at this site closing the road off. I decided to drive north along the coastline from there, and study the effects of the tsunami firsthand along the way.
I’m in the Haramachi district of Minami Soma City near the coast now. I see no buildings in these plains. Buildings have become heaps of rubble in the wake of the unprecedented earthquake, tsunami and radiation leakage that Mayor Sakurai called a compound disaster. The tsunami claimed more than 600 lives in Minami Soma alone. I directed my eyes to Kitaizumi beach where a world surfing championship was once held. The sandy beach was gone. I saw the Haramachi Thermal Power Plant’s tanks that went up in flames nearby.
Wave-dissipating concrete blocks that are supposed be in the sea were scattered around farmland. Utility poles were leveled. New utility poles were in neat rows right next to the leveled ones. The tsunami damaged Fukushima beyond my expectation. Instead of only focusing on the nuclear plants, I felt we should direct our attention to the tsunami damage that actually left people dead and smashed houses.
I reached the Matsukawaura Lagoon. Houses here have sunk. Ships have turned upside down. Microbuses have stayed afloat. The residential area of Obama was gone. I decided to leave for Miyagi Prefecture.
I met Mayor Toshio Saito at the Yamamoto Town Office. Drenched in sweat, we discussed future reconstruction plans for the town in the cracked office where the air conditioning no longer worked because of earthquake damage. “Our town has no budget and Miyagi Prefecture has no money. But we have ideas,” the town mayor told me. “The central government can supply us with a budget, but it has no vision. That’s why reconstruction programs have progressed at a snail’s pace.” After exchanging opinions for about 50 minutes and making minor donations, I left the office to visit devastated areas.
I drove the rental car from a hill to flatland. Going over a railroad crossing with no trace of rail, I stopped the car in front of what used to be JR Sakamoto station. The whole area was flat. The tsunami washed away all structures, including houses, stores and the station building. All I saw were giant heaps of gathered rubble. “If you mention the tsunami, people think of the Sanriku area (north of Sendai),” said Mayor Saito. “They pay no attention to the southern part of Miyagi. It took us three days to reach people outside after the quake.”
Led by a GLOBIS MBA student from the town, dozens of GLOBIS students had visited Yamamoto as volunteer workers. They had cleared away rubble and exchanged opinions on reconstruction with people like the mayor and local celebrities. I heard they planned to visit the town again the following day. Mayor Saito agreed to deliver a speech at the GLOBIS campus on reconstruction during his future visit to Tokyo.
“The weather in Yamamoto Town is cool in summer and warm in winter,” explained the town mayor. “People have called this town the Shonan (a famous beach resort near Tokyo) of the Tohoku region.” After the meeting, I visited the town’s beach. Wave-dissipating concrete blocks were buried in sand. The tops of debris protruded from the ocean surface. Only a few pine trees remained on the shore. The tsunami has created new waterways. I wondered how long it would take to return this once beautiful sandy beach to its original condition.
I drove the rental car past Sendai Airport and into Sendai City. The lanes widened and skyscrapers grew in number. Sendai seemed a very big city. I’m traveling to Fukushima City in a bullet train right now and I’ll be staying in Fukushima City tonight.
I had a reunion with an old friend in Fukushima City that night. We drank until dawn. There were more people in the city’s entertainment district than I had imagined. The atmosphere was upbeat. We went to a local nightclub. Women there were innocent, beautiful and energetic. The club also charged only a third of what I would be paying in Tokyo. It was a good bargain. I liked it so much that I decided to visit the club again.
With a bit of a hangover, I left for home from JR Fukushima Station the next morning. Two types of bullet trains, Max Yamabiko and Tsubasa, were joining each other while I was at the station. Like a little boy, I excitedly watched the connection maneuver.
Returning home from Fukushima, I took a short rest and escorted my fourth and fifth sons to a school that teaches them the game of go. After that, I went for to a pool to have a swim with them. I visited the Mitama Festival at the Yasukuni Shrine in our neighborhood with my children in the early evening. We shopped around stalls after offering our prayers at the shrine. I studied passers-by while my kids enjoyed scooping bouncy balls. Pretty women were out in their colourful yukata (light informal cotton kimonos typically worn in the summer months).
I’m about to leave for Fukushima. The greenery of Yasukuni Shrine is beautiful. I opened the windows and enjoyed listening to the cicadas’ chorus. I planned to leave home a little early and take in a museum exhibition in Ueno called “Kukai’s World: The Arts of Esoteric Buddhism” (Kukai was a famous Buddhist priest) before catching my train.
I’m traveling to Fukushima on the Tohoku Shinkansen. Trips to Tohoku have become so frequent since the earthquake that I feel like I’m visiting the region almost every week.
In Fukushima City, I visited Fukushima Medical University and exchanged opinions with radiologists there. They taught me many things. The information they gave me improved my understanding. They expressed the view that “probably no one died as a result of higher radiation levels from the trouble at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant.” It was basically the same opinion as that held by overseas experts.
I visited two temporary housing complexes where evacuees from Iitate Village took shelter. I went inside the house of an elderly couple at one of the housing complexes built in an industrial park and asked them some questions. I also talked with a father and his five children at the other temporary housing complex built on the grounds of a former elementary school. We had a lively conversation since I too am the father of five children. I realized parents, wherever they are, feel the same way for their children.
From the shelter, I went to the venue of the KIBOW Fukushima Meeting to help with preparations. Close to 50 people were expected. The venue was smaller than I had expected, and I wasn’t sure if it was large enough for the turnout. A KIBOW Meeting was finally going to take place in Fukushima, after traveling north from Mito ,Iwaki, Sendai, Morioka, and to Hachinohe, in that order. Iitate Village Chief Norio Kanno was scheduled to attend this meeting. I hoped to have a productive discussion about reconstruction and Fukushima’s future with him and other participants.
The KIBOW Fukushima Meeting got underway. Following my address, Kaname Tajima, parliamentary minister of economy, trade and industry, delivered a speech. The venue was packed; the most densely populated KIBOW Meeting ever. The theme for this meeting was “Productively Discussing Reconstruction and the Future of Fukushima and Japan.” Tajima told the audience, “We all want a bright future. Let’s share our ideas for attaining that goal.”
People such as Sakie Akiyama of Saki Corporation and Tetsuro Ii of Commons Asset Management Inc. came from Tokyo to take part in the KIBOW Fukushima Meeting. There were also participants from Morioka, and places as far as Boston. Two GLOBIS MBA students and three GLOBIS employees from Fukushima Prefecture worked behind the scene as helpers.
After a group discussion, participants listened to what each other had to say. “Those of us in Iitate have pushed ourselves very hard,” the Iitate Village chief shared cheerfully and constructively. “We will keep doing our best to live the extremely tough life of evacuees.”
“When I attended the KIBOW Iwaki Meeting, I declared I would build a food court in front of Iwaki Station for people who had lost food and beverage jobs as a result of the tsunami and the nuclear accident,” informed an entrepreneur from Iwaki. “My plan is progressing steadily. I invite those of you to apply without hesitation to be part of this food court. In the meantime, in Tokyo’s Takaido area I also set up a store that sells foods from Fukushima, called 47 Dining. I want to keep doing things that motivate people in Fukushima.”
“Tens of billions of yen will flow into Fukushima for decontamination operations from this point on,” an environmental researcher from Fukushima pointed out. “People in Fukushima Prefecture should actively take part in these operations. We cannot continue these with volunteer work alone. We must turn them into a real business.”
“Junior high school students in Nichinan City, Miyazaki Prefecture, have recently started exchanging tanka (short, 31-syllable Japanese poems) with children from Iitate Village,” reported the Radio Fukushima announcer and spokesperson for a support group for Iitate Village evacuees. “The activity is giving the junior high school students in Nichinan a solid feeling of ‘serving others.’ I propose that grownups stop lamenting the terrible situation and start taking positive steps of some kind.”
“Please visit Fukushima” continued the announcer. “And please spend some money while you are here. Eat agricultural products from Fukushima. People in the stricken areas want you to feel the conditions in Fukushima with your own eyes and engage yourself in what’s going on here. They want you to lend an ear to their voices.”
“Radiation doses are an everyday conversation topic in Fukushima,” noted a woman from Shirakawa City who attended the meeting who is a friend of a mother of Mr. Minemura, who acted as the moderator. “We don’t have enough information. We don’t know which information is trustworthy.”
Tajima spoke again at the end. Taking over the microphone, I gave a closing speech.
The KIBOW Fukushima Meeting ended with great excitement. I’m leaving the venue now for a follow-up party at an open-air food court called Yatai Mura. People of Fukushima are extremely energetic and positive. I would like to thank them for that. I promise to visit Fukushima again.
August 4, 2011