Train to Nowhere

June 24, 2011   By KUMIKO MAKIHARA
Foreign Policy

KORIYAMA, Japan — On the first day of Golden Week, Japan’s string of national holidays that start in late April, I boarded the just reopened bullet train from Tokyo to the quake-struck northeast. I have taken that line many times before without special thought, but this time I savored the ride as a moving testament to the speed of the region’s recovery. The conductor apologized that the train would be slow through some of the damaged areas. But considering that the March 11 temblor left the route with twisted tracks, leaning utility poles and stations with collapsed ceilings, it seemed like a miracle that the supermodern transport service was back at all.

I didn’t sense that rosy feeling of progress where I got off in Koriyama, a major city in the center of Fukushima prefecture, about 60 kilometers west of the heavily damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. It doesn’t seem right to compare degrees of suffering among the regions devastated by the earthquake and tsunamis, but it would be fair to say that Fukushima is tragically shackled in its efforts to move forward by the additional burden of hosting the reactors. In late April, the governors of the two other hard-hit prefectures, Iwate and Miyagi, handed in reconstruction proposals to an advisory panel led by Prime Minister Naoto Kan. But Fukushima’s governor, Yuhei Sato, did not, saying dealing with the power plant took precedence. That may be, but to many residents the politician’s inaction came across as yet another sign of the prefecture’s isolation from the nation’s recovery efforts.

“We’ve suffered four times over: from the earthquake, tsunami, radiation and chaotic politics,” said Satoshi Nisaka, who does car inspections at a Toyota dealership. When the quake struck, Nisaka was going over documents at his office in the coastal town of Haramachi, about 25 kilometers north of the nuclear plant. Like most residents, he didn’t anticipate the scale of the tsunami, but wisely went to higher ground. From there he saw a retirement home being washed away and the shoreline, normally blocked from view by houses and pine trees which had all been pummeled by the waters. Throughout the chaos of the first few days, Nisaka, an amateur ham radio operator, kept himself informed by listening in on the fire department’s communications.

Nisaka had taken the government’s long-standing predictions of major seismic activity in his region seriously. At home he stored plenty of fuel and kept a forklift on hand. Right after the quake he set up a computer network from where he sent out video footage of the area. Like many residents, Nisaka sneaked back into his home after it was designated off limits as part of the dangerously contaminated hot zone. But unlike the majority of people who grabbed a few crucial papers and whatever else they could carry by hand, Nisaka’s advance planning allowed him to haul out on a truck his washing machine, refrigerator, TV, futons, books and a computer.

Nisaka feels he did the best he could in dealing with the disaster. He is disappointed that Japan’s leaders have not. “A politician’s role is to take action and give us dreams. I don’t see any faces of politicians here,” he said, explaining that no official has presented clear explanations on questions ranging from what happens to his bank loans to the dangers of the radiation. Nisaka wants to see support from other prominent people, too. “What happened to the lawyers’ groups?” he asked, referring to the rights-championing attorneys that often band together to support the accused in high-profile criminal cases. He even feels let down that he hasn’t heard from the nature conservation groups that in more peaceful times showed up to urge protection of the dragonflies that inhabit the area’s rice paddies.

That perception of a dearth of leadership has been felt throughout Japan. Immediately after the quake, nearly all of the official information – made up largely of claims that things were under investigation – came from the government spokesman Yukio Edano and not the prime minister. Meanwhile Tokyo’s high-profile governor, Shintaro Ishihara, exacerbated nerves by referring to the calamity as “divine punishment” for selfish behavior. A popular tweet at the time said, “Edano go to sleep, Kan wake up, Ishihara shut up.” Kan began appointing disaster-relief panels whose number swelled to more than 20, giving the impression that the creation of committees was more of a tactic to diffuse responsibility than a means for concrete action.

Official announcements on the hazards of radiation, too technical for most people to understand to begin with, were initially sporadic and confusing. “The government kept saying, ‘There is no immediate physical danger,’ but does that mean physical danger is coming later? When?” asked Kazuyuki Yamada, from the town of Namie, about eight kilometers from the reactors. “I’d never heard of millisieverts or becquerels before,” he said, referring to the units of measurement of radiation. “I don’t think I wanted to know so much about them.”

It didn’t help that in late April, a university professor appointed by the prime minister as a special adviser on nuclear matters abruptly resigned, charging that the leadership was “haphazard” in its decision-making and pointing out that the government-set ceiling for radiation levels allowed in Fukushima schoolyards was too high. “If I were asked whether I would put my children in such a situation, I would definitely not want to,” said the tearful Toshiso Kosako in a press conference. Kosako’s remonstrations left Fukushima residents even more puzzled as to whether they should let their children play outside during recess.

The absence of pertinent information is partly due to the lack of consensus here on how much data should be made available to the public. Japanese leaders have traditionally operated on a need-to-know basis, arguing that specialized information can be wrongfully interpreted and cause confusion and panic. For example, the government did not release on a regular basis its calculations of the amount of radiation in the air until six weeks after the reactors started spewing toxic materials. Those estimates would have been useful for the public in planning evacuations and in stemming the rush across cyberspace of false and frightening rumors.

Japan’s mainstream press also errs on the side of caution when it comes to publishing sensitive information. The weekly magazine AERA strayed from the pack right after the quake and put a photo of a man wearing a full-face mask on its cover with the caption “Radiation is coming.” Even though the line turned out to be correct, readers barraged the magazine with criticism of sensationalism, pressuring the editor to issue an apology.

For Takayoshi Watanabe, the sense of Fukushima’s isolation was felt in the month that rescue work was stopped in the prefecture’s wrecked coastal areas near the power plant. The day after the quake, Watanabe and his colleagues of the volunteer fire brigade were smoking cigarettes and trading banter as they took a break from their recovery efforts within view of the reactors. Their lighthearted exchanges helped mask their fears, the 31-yearold auto mechanic explained. “We were all going a bit crazy,” Watanabe said. “We weren’t used to so many dead bodies. We have normal jobs.”

Just after 3:30 p.m., they heard a blunted but resounding explosive sound. “We all expected to see a mushroom cloud, but there wasn’t one,” Watanabe recalled. It was the blast of a hydrogen explosion at one of the six reactors. Everyone,including the workers, was ordered to leave the area immediately. Rescue operations didn’t resume for six weeks, and by that time they were effectively for the retrieval of bodies. Among them was Watanabe’s cousin who had also been working as a firefighter. “He had been abandoned for a month,” Watanabe said bitterly.

The closing off of areas with high radiation readings, while understandable, has been torturous for residents who when evacuated were given the impression that they could return very soon. Every day, they have watched the TV coverage of people in the other regions picking through debris to recover photo albums and other mementos. In mid-May, the government started a long-awaited program to let residents of the restricted areas go to their houses, but the visits are strictly limited. Participants are bused in for a two-hour period and can only take out belongings that fit into a designated 70-centimeter-by-70-centimeter plastic bag.

Kazuyuki Yamada had evacuated with no particular possessions and was still wearing his volunteer firefighting outfit of a happi coat and galoshes when he left. His supervisor had suggested that the evacuation was just a precaution. Yamada noted with irony that he has a Tokyo Electric Power Co. calendar at home that instructs residents on emergency procedures in the case of an accident at its reactors. “It says things like, ‘Let’s board a bus,’ and ‘Let’s drink iodide,’ but doesn’t offer any details,” he said.

On April 12, Yamada snuck back into Namie to check on his home and apartment. He donned two ponchos and a gauze mask. A policeman stopped him at a 30-kilometer perimeter checkpoint, but when Yamada explained that he just wanted to retrieve his bank documents, the officer told him, “Go get them and leave immediately.” He drove into his deserted village that eerily had some working traffic lights.

As soon as Yamada emerged from the hot zone, he changed his clothes and sealed the items he had worn into a bag. He stopped at a local government screening center and confirmed that he did not register any high radiation readings. He also washed his car.

Even with such precautions, Yamada might have gotten the pariah treatment. Fuhyo higai (damage from rumors) is a term frequently in the news these days. The phrase refers mostly to financial losses from the decline in sales of products that are regarded, often mistakenly, as tainted with radiation. But the negative perceptions have spiraled hysterically out of control in some cases. Seiichi Nogami, a car salesman from Namie, says he now gets requests from local residents for cars with out-of-prefecture plates. Clients have told him about restaurants and shops from other areas that refused to let in autos from Fukushima. “Of course the rest of the world might be viewing all of Japan this way,” he says, referring to reports that Japanese exports were being checked for radiation levels at ports of entry.

The most heart-wrenching tales of fuhyo may be those that affect children, such as the cases of evacuees being taunted at their new schools as being irradiated. Schoolteacher Tomoyuki Watanabe noted that even some local children have skewed views of the effects of radiation. He recalled that when one of his students noticed three strands of her hair had come out, she wondered if that had been caused by radiation. “It is these kids that will build the future here,” he said. “I don’t want them to think their bodies are worthless from radiation or that they can never live here again. I want them to work for their hometown.”

That is a tall order for the traumatized children to think of fulfilling right away, but many local adults have never thought otherwise. Shuro Sato, who heads a major Toyota dealership in Koriyama, has continued to come to work every day since the quake. The three-story office building is notably different from before. In one corner of the first-floor sales area sits a vending-machine-sized appliance that removes radioactive isotopes from water. Five construction workers are hammering away to replace the collapsed ceilings on the second floor. A bronze bust of Toyota Motor founder Kiichiro Toyoda sits in a hallway, but it is missing its metallic glasses, which flew off and broke in the quake.

“Fukushima is in a crisis,” said Sato. “But I have my company to worry about.” A bulletin board in his office displays the photo-bearing name cards of every single one of his 550 employees. Although some lost family members, all of the workers managed to survive.

While I toured Sato’s office building, a wagtail flew up from the planters lining the third-floor windows that look down into a courtyard. Although more than half of the window boxes had been knocked to the ground, the wagtail was building a nest in one of the flower beds, just as it had done every year before.