When the Fukushima nuclear power plant exploded, I was in Fukushima covering people who had evacuated from their houses near the plant, as they underwent radiation checks as authorities isolated those who had showed signs of exposure.
The disaster control center in the prefectural government hall in Fukushima city, situated about 63 km (39 miles) north-west of Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, was chaotic. However, once I stepped out the building, everything around me looked the same in the city and it was difficult to comprehend what was actually happening. People in the city were walking their dogs outside and riding their bicycles on the streets, although lights were out and many places were experiencing cuts in water supplies.
Soon after, I received an evacuation order from my bosses and since then, my coverage was carried out from outside of Fukushima city and I didn’t have a chance to go back there until recently. Even five months after the disaster, it seemed like fresh and shocking news of radiation had been floating up incessantly. Not just reading or hearing about the situation but imagining the amount of pain and stress the people in Fukushima were going through had made me feel depressed.
When I found about a Buddhist zen monk Koyu Abe, who aimed to revive Fukushima by planting sunflowers, amaranthus, field mustard and cockscomb, which are believed to absorb cesium, it occurred to me that I should go and cover his story. Before I even realized, I picked up the phone and shortly afterward I was on a bullet train heading for Fukushima.
When the fully packed train stopped at Fukushima station, I got off and realized not many people got off with me. However, everything looked strangely normal as the cicadas were buzzing lively under the sun. Just like a normal hot summer day. As I looked outside the window of a taxi on my way to the temple, the rice paddies glistened like a sea of green waves and the flowers planted alongside the road seemed heavenly. I still could not comprehend that many places were tainted with radiation.
My dosimeter showed around 1.3-1.5 microsiverts per hour, which is about 6.5 times natural background radiation levels. Soon after I arrived at the temple, with a history of 420 years, the monk and his wife greeted me and served me green tea. Soon afterward, he told me to come with him to a different part of the temple.
The monk showed me a pile of cedars and pine leaves in the corner of the temple grounds, which he said had originally been scattered in the temple garden. He had two dosimeters covered in plastic bags to avoid the radiation particles from getting attached, and placed them near the pile. Suddenly they started beeping. The reading quickly jumped to over 20 microsieverts/hour. I tried with mine as well, and it did the same.
I was shocked to experience high radiation and realized the graveness of the situation faced by people living in Fukushima. The radiation was not visible, but it was clearly there.
Abe described the radiation particles as an “invisible snow”, “A snow you can’t see has covered the area, and has brought a long, long winter to Fukushima,” he said. Abe’s organization called, “Make a wish upon flowers,” aimed to reduce the volume of radiation in Fukushima by using certain plants’ natural ability to reduce toxic materials in the ground. With his volunteer group, comprised of about 100 members, he planted sunflowers where radiation levels were high. Abe hoped to lower the level of radiation and through that ease stress and anxiety experienced by the residents. He also strongly believed that his actions will tackle the prevalent sense of stagnation and help cultivate a sense of hope.
The monk is also a father of three boys, each in high school, junior high and elementary school. Two of the boys have already decided to become monks and the youngest will likely follow suit in the near future. Abe said, ”I worry that I have to bring up my children in this sort of environment… but if he also decides to take this path, even though he is a child, he should stay in this neighborhood and listen to the people’s anguish, rooting himself in the community. “ “But I leave the final decision to him”, he added.
His wife, Michiko, 42, told me that she was indeed worried about her children, but at the same time, after all, this was their home. That is why she decided to cope with the situation in the long term and protect her family as best as she could by herself. She said their 8-year old son was very anxious for a few months following the disaster, but finally seems like he is starting to find his ways to deal with his stress. She recalls that he would cry when he heard noise of a strong wind and rain. One day he came back from school crying after he got soaked wet in the rain. The son shouted at her, ”why didn’t you pick me up from school?!” as balls of tears rolled down his cheeks. He told her that his friend had told him that he would die if he gets wet in radiated rain.
I asked the boy directly about his concerns about radiation. “I am scared,” said the boy. “But I try not to think about it, since it keeps me from doing anything else.” Even a small child was trying to find ways to cope with his fear and adapt to the new environment. But I saw a glimpse of bright future in his eyes when he told me “I hope to become like my father when I grow up. I admire him because he gives energy to the people of Fukushima.”
What moved me most was to see the residents not give up their hopes and strive to overcome their predicament. The three days that I spent with the monk’s family were very moving. They were like a blessing to me. The monk also had his motives to tell me his story. He looked into my eyes and said: “Media outlets have the obligation to reveal and bring everything into the light, so that the people can make their decisions.” By making everything clear, the media can help stop the spread of bad rumors and lower the anxiety while speeding up the recovery process, he said.
As I took the train back from Fukushima to Tokyo, I thought about his family and especially about the boy. How old will he be by the time the “invisible snow” in Fukushima melts and disappears? I imagined him become like his father, smiling in the middle of a sunflower field, free from the fear of radiation.