Invisible snow: Six months later

February 10, 2012

By Yuriko Nakao

For the first blog on the “invisible snow” of Fukushima, click here.

As Japan approached the one year anniversary of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, I revisited Buddhist zen monk Koyu Abe, chief priest of Joenji temple in Fukushima. I covered him six months ago when he was planting and distributing sunflower seedlings in an effort to lighten the impact of the radiation following the nuclear disaster triggered by the earthquake, the worst since Chernobyl in 1986.

Ever since my coverage of Abe and his family, I had kept in touch with them, checking in once in a while to see how they were doing. Despite their hardships and their stoic way of devoting themselves to the community, they were light hearted. One night, Abe called my cell phone in excitement because they had seen me on television when I was covering the world gymnastics championship.

Thanks to this sort of relationship, I was able to be a part of his daily life while covering his latest efforts to counter the radiation amid his normal duties as a monk and as the father of three boys.

When I arrived at the temple in the first week of February, it had a different look. Last time, the grounds were filled with flower seedlings and sunflowers bloomed as cicadas buzzed. But this time, the temple was quiet and colorless under a blanket of snow — with radiation storage tanks piled next to the entrance.

Last year, Abe had described the radiation as “invisible snow.” Now, the invisible snow was covered with visible snow.

“Real snow is cold but it is much better than the invisible snow. The visible snow will eventually melt away.”

In his latest attempts to cleanse the radiation “hot spots” across the region, Abe and his volunteers were removing the snow, digging out the soil, and spraying special detergent solutions with high-pressure sprays to bind with radioactive particles that effectively remove the radiation. At the end of the process, they then store the radioactive contaminants on a part of his temple grounds, located in an area where no one is residing.

Since the government hasn’t been able to decide on a temporary repository for the radioactive waste, he has continued to offer part of his temple grounds until the government comes up with an official solution.

As a photographer, many times I confront the dilemma of whether I should put down my camera once in a while to offer help to those in the photographs. Many times, that is worth it and necessary when I am the only one who can help. But in this case I didn’t have to feel any guilt since Abe would not allow any woman in her 30’s to take part, because there was no way to rule out the possibilities of risk if one has a baby in the future. Therefore it was clear-cut and I could focus on photographing, with a mask on.

On the second day of the two-day volunteer work, Abe and his volunteers worked on cleansing an elementary school, which happened to be where his youngest son Yushin, was enrolled in the 3rd grade. Some 30 students out of 450 had left the school and this included Yushin’s best friend.

Despite the fact that there had already been an official cleaning by the government last year, new hot spots had appeared which measured over six microsieverts and Abe used a high-pressure spray to remove the radiated particles attached mainly in the gutters.

Taking in to consideration that children are more vulnerable to radiation, Yushin has not been playing outside after school, his mother Michiko said. This has been the case with other children in their neighborhood as well.

However, as I shot Yushin playing Nintendo Wii’s virtual bowling game inside, I noticed how he has grown taller and was more confident and willing to smile at me. His mother said he doesn’t cry anymore when there are earthquakes, nor is he frightened by rain or thunder.

Yushin’s vitality underscored the monk’s message that “it is hardship that makes us strong and offers us a chance to be grateful for what we already have.”

Near the temple grounds, bright green seedlings of field mustard, which is also believed to absorb the radiation just like sunflowers, was already growing under the blanket of snow, waiting to sprout in spring as if hoping to offer smiles to the people of Fukushima.

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