Invisible snow

August 19, 2011

Invisible Snow from Reuters Tokyo Pictures on Vimeo.

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.


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how strange that we’ve all seen those people for many mounths later.That made me ask how terribly are they going to affect more after the fukushima ?

Posted by erkin6 | Report as abusive

Beatiful pictures and a fantastic article, thank you Mrs. Nakao.

Posted by DubaiUAE | Report as abusive

The big question is, is the Japanese government being reckless by allowing residents to continue living in the area? Radiation is forever, the world already has been contaminated with radiation from open air testing during the 1950’s as well as Chernoble and three mile island. Without being told why, people are sold iodized salt. Not knowing the real reason is to reduce thyroid cancer. We’re getting closer to the dark, sunless world of Blade Runner?

Posted by Michael1013 | Report as abusive

Absolutely beautiful photo graphs as well as a very good story that is filled with hope – where Hope is an ingredient very much in demand in today’s world. And Koyu Abe deserves a medal or an award for his role.

The story, however, can use a sequel. This is because Cesium-137 has an half-life of about 30 years. That will not change no matter whether Ca-137 is in the soil or in the plants. So removal or harvesting of the plants is eventually required to really remove the Ca-137 from that area of the world.

Fortunately, Ca-137 has industrial uses. So the plant-concentrated Ca-137 has value – which value can be used to both continue future planting as well as harvesting of the plants.

May you write a sequel and also illustrate it with photos as beautiful as those you have published today.

Dr.Ying – The Doctor is Ying :-)

Posted by DrYing | Report as abusive

This is a beautiful story, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it! Thank you!
It shines a ray of hope into a very glum-looking world at the moment. If more people in the world were of the mindset to think predominantly of others – and the world we leave for each other and future generations, working for the community instead of just ourselves, what a mutually beneficial, happy place we would be living in!

Posted by Deadrago | Report as abusive

This is very disturbing to me. I would suggest that anyone who hasn’t seen the documentary “White Light, Black Rain” see this marvelous film about the horrors of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. This isn’t the watered down version most people have seen on t.v. It is very difficult to watch, particularly for very sensitive people, but it shows just how dangerous the radiation actually is. There are still the ‘untouchables’ from 1945 and people born with genetic defects. Now, with so many children showing radiation in their thyroid glands, it is horrifying to contemplate the fate of these poor souls.

Posted by sophiewonderful | Report as abusive

Sophiewonderful: I would hardly presume to educate the Japanese of the horrors of radiation, or those of Hiroshima. I suspect they know better than the rest of us.
Kudos to the family and the citizens of Fukushima for keeping alive hope in the midst of such fear and catastrophe. May their hopes and dreams come true!

Posted by wook | Report as abusive

I am concerned that the of FuKushima incident and its subsequent low, cumulative exposure to young children may be serious than what we now known scientifically. The society may pay a heavy price down the road if we think this low, chronic exposure radioactivity to the the most sensitive young children is of no health consequences.

Posted by Generations | Report as abusive

First of all, this is a wonderful, moving and optimistic story. The author deserves a lot of credit for her work.

Next, about radiation. As a result of accidental exposure to radioactive iodine when I was a child. I personally suffered from thyroid cancer, at age 50. Now, at age 60, I have been free of cancer for almost 10 years.

Thyroid cancer, while it is certainly undesirable, is among the most curable of cancers, oddly because the very substance that gave it to me, radioactive iodine, can also be used to cure the disease in a large majority of cases.

The science and medicine are complex, so I will not try to explain that all here, but it is worth knowing that cancer of the thyroid gland is seldom fatal. Obviously, no one wishes for anyone to become ill. Yet fear, even though real, need not be overwhelming.

Most people from the Fukushima area will probably have perfectly normal lives, without any health problems resulting from the reactor failures. Those accidents were terrible events, but people can realistically have courage, even in the face of risk.

Posted by Ralphooo | Report as abusive

I hear the prime minster is changed every year. So who’s going to be made responsible. I think that’s the problem, no responsibility. Plus I’m living in Japan temporarily and noone wants to talk about it or think about it.. unless you have too many sake then it all comes out…

Posted by HolidayNova | Report as abusive