Friday, July 01, 2011

What's luck got to do with it?

The Chinese character representing ‘fuku’ in the name Fukushima, one of the Japanese regions devastated in the earthquakes on March 11 2011, means luck. ‘Fuku’ in the name Fukui, the most nuclear region of the world with fourteen reactors in western Japan, is the same character. Fuqing, in the Fujian province of China, the host of one of 13 reactors in the country, also begins with the same character as Fukushima and Fukui. Is it just a sheer coincidence that these regions have got so many nukes? Has luck got anything to do with the sheer volume of nuclear facilities in these regions?

Luck seems to have played its part in the history of the small Japanese town of Iitate. After the earthquake, I am following up an invitation from Iitate farmers and, travelling through the narrow winding road into the village, it looks idyllic and certainly lives up to its reputation as one of the ‘most beautiful villages’ in the country. The early summer sun pours gently on the lush hillsides and there are no visible signs of any damage from the massive earthquake that rocked the rest of eastern Japan. For those unaware of the cruel twist of fate that afflicted Japan at the time, ‘peaceful’ and ‘picture-perfect’ would usually be words that could best describe this village but, for those who know the context, Iitate is nothing but surreal. Because, like the cloud of unknowing, there is an invisible radiation that is destroying this tiny village tucked away in the heart of Fukushima prefecture.

Along this road, we see the paddies full of water reflecting the early summer sun and the rice seedlings swinging gently. However, over the hump that leads into the village, the paddies are dry and unattended, some already taken over by vigorous weeds. The shutters on the main streets are shut tight and there is no sign of small children running around. An eerie serenity prevails.

A few days before my visit, the legendary singer, Tokiko Kato, made contact and asked if I would accompany her to Iitate. Probably the most socially-conscious singer songwriter in Japan, she was preparing for a free concert in Iitate, before the entire village was due for evacuation. Having released more than 60 albums over four decades, writing and performing songs of love and other essential aspects of life, she is a household name in Japan. What separates her from other performers is her willingness to sing about the darker side of the life, such as the plight of contracted workers at the nuclear power plants. As a result, some of her songs were deemed too controversial for the music markets and withdrawn by her recording companies.

Iitate was dying a slow death in the late 1980s. In the country where the value of land is judged by the amount of rice it can produce, Iitate had long been regarded as almost worthless, because its cool summers hamper the growth of rice. One particularly cold summer 30 years ago almost wiped out the entire harvest and the village was on the verge of extinction. It seemed, like many other rural areas in Japan at the time, on the way out. Against all the odds, however, Iitate reinvented itself through a fusion of traditional values and imported ideas such as ‘slow food’ and ‘permaculture’.

Instead of growing crops not suited to the local climate, the villagers tried out more favourable industries, such as dairy and beef cattle. The village, with over 3,000 beef cattle, established the Iitate beef brand – reputed to be as good as, if not better than, the famed Matsuzaka beef.

The village became a preferred destination for ‘back-to-the-land’ enthusiasts and settlers, both young and old and, unlike many other rural communities in Japan, Iitate came back from the brink and enjoyed a steady increase of population. It was during this reinvigoration period that Tokiko last played there over 20 years ago.

Over that time, the village organised regular ‘fact-finding’ missions to various parts of Japan and abroad, to study innovative ideas and strengthen the ties with like-minded groups in other regions. A month before the Fukushima disaster, while I was lodging at an organic farm on the outskirts of Tokyo set up by Tokiko’s late husband, a dozen or so Iitate farmers came to visit, enthusiastically explaining some of the measures introduced in the village over the years, as a result of these missions.

They were not the stereotypical slow food fanatics and permaculture wannabes. They looked more ‘practitioner’ than ‘theorist’ or ‘idealist’, with years of experience under their belts. Most impressive was the excellent quality of the beef and other farm produces they brought with them. Tokiko and I promised that we would visit Iitate one day.


Iitate did not suffer badly from the quake, except for some small cracks in pavements and a crumbled down earth oven. Although Iitate is in the same prefecture as Fukushima, it is too far inland to be affected by tsunamis.

The Japanese authorities drew a 20 kilometre exclusion arc around the troubled power plant in Fukushima within days after the disaster struck. Sitting outside of this arc, some people from this zone took refuge in Iitate. While this may have seemed a good idea at the time, it seems there was little consideration for how radioactive dust might travel, especially in the context of heavy winds coming in from the Japanese coast.

The area, deemed uninhabitable, albeit only for a while, was reconsidered when a group of independent radiation experts went around the village in late March, surveying the areas outside the arc. One of the researchers who discovered Iitate’s contamination was Tetsuji Imanaka from the Research Reactor Institute at Kyoto University. He and others drove around the village and created a contamination map, something the government should have done much earlier, instead of relying on the number of fixed monitoring posts.

‘Monitoring the radiation at the fixed location is useful to detect the occurrence of accidents and bomb testings but, after the accident [at] Fukushima, they should have gone around and made a detailed contamination map as soon as possible,’ said Imanaka when I spoke to him in his office in Kyoto. ‘Obviously, the government had been ill prepared for a major nuclear disaster like this one’.

His findings in Iitate are alarming. ‘Some areas in the village showed the amount of radiation readings as high as to be declared no-man’s-land for Chernobyl’. And he should know, as he been a frequent visitor to the Ukranian town for over 25 years, studying the long-term effects of the incident. Imanaka and others found parts of Iitate contaminated with radiation levels more than 30 micro sievert/hour, almost eight times above the official ‘tolerable’ level of 3.8 micro sievert/hour. It is believed the strong south-easterly winds brought in these deadly substances.

It took the Japanese government a few more weeks before deciding to ask more than 6,000 villagers to evacuate Fukushima. Although they were aware of the findings of Imanaka and others, the villagers waited for the official confirmation, for they knew they would not receive any financial compensation without the official words.

Because of this, the government’s reluctance was understandable: if they officially sanctioned the evacuation, they would have to foot the bill, albeit saving some people from future radiation-related illness. That is why the government preferred the higher ‘acceptable level’ of radiation exposure, based on the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) recommendation, even though there are other radiation expert bodies, such as European Committee on Radiation Risk (ECRR), calling for lower limit. If the government accepted the much lower limit of 0.01 micro sievert/hour, as recommended by the ECRR, millions of people from the most of eastern Japan would have been relocated.

Imanaka concludes the government’s response as being ‘worse than that by the former Soviet government’ and all the government did was to ‘shift the goalpost and raise the tolerable level from more internationally acceptable 0.19 micro sievert/hour, to 3.8 micro sievert/hour, which is normally applicable to the workers in the controlled areas on the power plants and other nuclear sites’.

Koji Itonaga, a university professor and one of the leading proponents of permaculture in the country, had been involved in the development of Iitate for more than a decade. After the earthquake, he, as well as Imanaka, lobbied the government to swiftly relocate the Iitate’s population.

When we meet in Iitate, Itonaga takes out his Geiger counter and shows us the level of radioactive contamination. Set at his waist, Itonaga’s counter reads three-to-five micro sievert/hour and, when held closer to the ground, it jumped to 10. When held at the bottom of the rainwater downpipe, the counter increases to 15. While these levels are incredibly high, some areas in the village have reported catastrophically high levels of 75 micro sievert/hour.

Itonaga is in Iitate to suggest that the village chief, Norio Kanno, considers a more organised long-term relocation of the local population and has also brought with him a plan to start afresh somewhere else. In his assessment, villagers will not be able to return any time soon and, certainly, a great deal longer than the government would lead them to believe.

The permacultural influence is obvious in the recently completed guest house next to the village office. Facing south to maximise the winter sun, plenty of insulation and angled eaves to cut off the sun during the summer, it is a comfortable abode throughout the year. The grape vines outside help shade the building from the hot summer sun and, inside, a fire wood burner sits in front of a heat retaining wall. It has permaculture hall marks all over. Outside the building, there are keyhole-shaped vegetable patches and bio-grey water treatment trenches. Up on the roof, solar panels power a hot water system.

According to Itonaga, this building accommodated more than 30 refugees for a while after the earthquake. ‘Early spring, it was quite cold then, but they found it very warm and cosy staying here,’ said Itonaga. He looked decidedly ambivalent when showing these features around the building and its surroundings to us. He was an architect of these permaculture features as well as some of the social initiatives.

Later in the afternoon, we meet the village chief, who tells us that almost two-thirds of the villagers have already gone: they are the lucky ones. The chief, Norio Kanno, is remarkably collected and looks resolute, rather than exhausted and exasperated. He gave short shrift to the relocation ideas presented by Kato and Itonaga and has been given the task of revitalising the village. Kanno believes optimistically that he and the villagers could return soon to Iitate but the presence of the invisible radiation and the experience of Chernobyl suggests otherwise.

The local school gymnasium where Tokiko is to play has a strange ‘Bermuda Triangle’ feel to it. The students, we are told, have already gone, but in a hurry: baseball gear is scattered all over the school ground and one note on the wall in the locker room pleads ‘give your all’, as if all the players left during the coach’s pre-match address.

As the evening falls and the full moon rises, the locals appear in groups of two and three. Overall, less than 300 turn up. More noticeable is the media presence, with camera crews from a number of television networks, as well as a couple of web streamers. About a dozen print journalists are busy interviewing just about anyone they can grab and then file their stories.

Tokiko plays some crowd favourites, as well as a new song she has written especially for the occasion. Many in the audience weep as Tokiko recalls the last time she played there, and promises that she won’t wait another 20 years before returning to Iitate. Although the performance is a success and happy occasion, many people sense that this is likely to be their last time together in the village.

The village office finally closed its door on 24 June and completed the relocation of the population. Kanno, in his farewell speech, though calm, can’t contain his anger, resentment and helplessness. He stresses that the relocation is only temporary, and hopes the villagers can return within two years. He and the villagers have fought against the odds successfully before, but they need a lot more luck this time.

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