The samurai and survivors of Fukushima
By Damir Sagolj
Shortly after the mandatory evacuation was announced on television, Fumio Okubo put on his best clothes and his daughter-in-law served up his favorite dinner. By morning, the 102-year-old was dead. He had hanged himself before dawn.
A rope knitted from plastic bags is certainly not a tanto knife. Nor was his death a dramatic one, with the public in attendance and blood all around but what an old farmer did that morning recalls the act of a samurai in ancient times – to die with honor. Okubo, who was born and lived his entire life between Iitate’s rice fields and cedar trees, wanted to die in his beautiful village, here and nowhere else.
For most people on Japan’s eastern coast – at least for those survivors who lost nobody and nothing – the true horror of the powerful earthquake and tsunami it triggered was over quickly. But for many unfortunate souls in otherwise prosperous Fukushima prefecture, March 11, 2011 was just the start of what for me is one of the most heart-rending stories I have ever covered outside the misery of the developing world.
The unimaginable happened. A nuclear power plant, the pride of Fukushima, was overwhelmed by the monster wave, setting off a series of disasters that never stopped. The result is equally disastrous: two and a half years later, Fukushima looks worse than ever. Once the government realized the initial scale of destruction and the threat of radiation, over 300,000 people were evacuated. Towns and villages were abandoned and lives broken. People were in shock. Only a few, Fumio Okubo among them, knew this was not something that would be over in a week or so.
Evacuees found shelter in schools and sport halls turned into collective centers across the prefecture, sometimes in places with radiation levels higher that their original home towns. In the early post-tsunami chaos, such mistakes were made. Iitate, officially one of the most beautiful villages in Japan, was originally designated as a shelter for people from areas near the tsunami-crippled plant. Then it was realized that the radioactive cloud traveled north-west, and that Iitate was more contaminated than many places closer to the plant.
Another announcement was made and everyone was on the move again, destined never to return. Except for Fumio Okubo and a few other civilian samurais, thousands of people ended up scattered across Japan.
Now, the miserable towns of Fukushima and their residents hang between the past disaster and fading hopes for rebuilding their futures.
For many, two and a half years was not long enough to bury their past and move on. They live in limbo – survivors, but not as alive as before. Inside plastic walls and tin roofs of their temporary accommodation they can’t possibly call home. Their real homes remain deep inside the zone. Most will never return there to live, and they know it.
The level of depression inside these thin walls is, not surprisingly, enormous. Hiroshi Masakura, a former landlord from Tomioka, currently lives at the evacuation center in Iwaki, south of the exclusion zone. A man in his sixties, with a strong face and a soft voice, he invited me to his makeshift home to meet his wife. But his wife Miyo is dead, and all I would meet are child-like portraits of her drawn by Masakura.
Initially, the family was evacuated north of their Tomioka town and spent months in a sport hall, sharing the floor with many others. “That was bearable,” said Masakura. “We all ate the same food, we were together. People like you and even some celebrities visited us.” But then they moved to a settlement of pre-fabricated houses in the suburbs of Iwaki. The bare floors of sport halls and mere survival were replaced with something designed to simulate real life, but it was a poor substitute. This is when the real pain starts over what has gone forever. Those who lost their homes in wars or disasters know this moment very well.
As soon as they moved into a tiny new apartment, Mrs Miyo began suffering from depression. Three months later, she fell ill and they took her to a hospital with stomach problems. Four months later, she was dead. This is where the otherwise very strong Masakura’s world collapsed and he broke down while telling me the story. I asked if he believed his wife’s illness was related to the depression. He quietly replied, “Yes.”
Between the bare walls of his temporary home are pictures and drawings and a shrine to his late wife and a huge new TV screen. There is nothing material from his previous life, as if it was just a dream. “Do you want to hear my song?” Masakura asked.
“Sayonara and Tomioka” are the only words I understand from the song a lonely man composed and wrote, but the sad tone told me precisely what it was all about. Translation was not needed and, like so many times before, I focused on a camera to chase away my own dark thoughts.
Official numbers confirm what I witnessed. The Mainichi newspaper reported earlier this month that evacuation-related deaths in Fukushima Prefecture have surpassed the number killed in the original disaster. About 1,600 people have died in Fukushima due to their health deteriorating while living as evacuees, or because hospitals treating them had shut down. Others were driven to suicide.
Some evacuees retain a sliver of hope, or are ready to return home regardless of the danger. Some are too old to care what long-term radiation exposure might do to their health. But what they will do? Live alone, forgotten and abandoned like these poor and half-wild people I encountered years ago in Chernobyl’s exclusion zone?
Ironically, many people forced out of Chernobyl were able to start a new life relatively quickly. They buried the victims, along with all hope of returning to normality, thanks to the brutality of life under a Communist regime. Some moved to Slavutich, a town purpose-built for evacuees, or to Kiev, or even further into what was then the Soviet Union. A few climbed the fence, ignored the law and settled back inside the exclusion zone. But people will not do this in Japan. They will obey the rules, do what they are told and suffer forever in their pre-fabricated new houses. Only a very few hardcore Japanese will do it their own way.
One of these people – considered a lunatic by some and a hero by others – is Keigo Sakamoto, a farmer and former caregiver for the mentally handicapped. Sakamoto said no to evacuation, stayed inside the zone and made animals his mission. He ventured into empty towns and villages and collected all the dogs and cats and rabbits and chocolate marmots abandoned by former owners when they left carrying sometimes as little as their wallets.
Now, Sakamoto lives with more than 500 animals in his mountain ranch near Naraha town in a scene reminiscent of experimental theater rather than modern Japan. It’s a very noisy theater too, because many of his dogs have gone wild from the time they spent alone before Sakamoto rescued them. As if to confirm this observation, one dog bit me hard as I passed his little house.
“There are no neighbors,” said Sakamoto. “I’m the only one here but I’m here to stay.” Of his more than 20 dogs, only two are friendly to man. One is called Atom, a super-cute white mutt, named because it was born just before the disaster at Fukushima.
In contrast to Sakamoto’s cacophonous theater, the scene in Fukushima’s deserted towns is more like a silent horror movie. It is a horror movie with no people, where the only dangers are half-destroyed buildings that might collapse and a few wild animals. Twice a wild boar trotted in front of my car and halted. I reached for my camera, but he ran away before I managed to photograph him.
Radiation is still a danger but everyone, myself included, wears a Geiger counter around the neck. There are roadblocks everywhere and signs warning of possible radiation hot spots.
In Chernobyl’s exclusion zone, a zombie-like creature bewildered by cheap vodka and loneliness might jump out from behind a bush. But here in Fukushima everything was in almost perfect order. In abandoned towns, traffic lights worked and a rare car would stop on red. Near the train station of a ghost town called Namie, sitting outside a shop whose window was stacked with undistributed copies of March 12, 2011 newspapers, a vending machine blinked. I dropped in a coin. The thing made the usual sound and gave me back a hot can of coffee! I tried to calculate how much energy the machine had consumed over these two and half years to heat my coffee in a ghost town with a population of zero.
On the other side of the rail tracks, along Namie’s main street, I met an elderly couple with masks over their faces and plastic bags over their shoes. They were making a rare authorized visit to their house and the family sweet shop they used to run. Mr and Mrs Nagaoka’s main concern was hygiene. There were mousetraps all over the place, and the couple spent their time taking dead mice out and putting more poison in.
After the pests were taken care of, Zenjuro and his wife started cleaning the freezers inside their shop. To my surprise, all the cakes were still there and in perfect shape. Nagaoka, the owner, explained that the power had never been off since the day of the disaster. He didn’t seem to find that odd or particularly significant.
I drove for days through abandoned towns and rice fields where strange things grew – plastic bags full of contaminated soil, the wrecked boat carried inland by the tsunami, another vending machine sprouting from a field.
I drove and drove through several parallel Fukushima worlds, where listless people moved through abnormally eerie scenery. Security guards were blocking the roads, letting in only those with special permission. The workers fixing the doomed plant or decontaminating the ground inside the exclusion zone were transported by bus through their own worlds to do miserable jobs. A few visiting former residents searched the vegetation for where the graveyard once stood.
I kept driving endlessly on roads cleaned and repaired as if life would come back tomorrow. My car radio was obviously broken and the only station it could tune to played classical music (called “serious music” in my native Bosnia). It was almost a perfect soundtrack to the scenery. Although Johnny Cash came to mind often: “I felt the power of death over life. I hung my head, I hung my head.”
Fumio Okubo, a modern samurai from Iitate, knew it all. Fukushima’s problems will take an age to fix. The old man just didn’t have time to wait.