Fukushima: a Strange Kind of Homecoming
One year on from Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster, the Unuma family return to the exclusion zone and what was once their farm.
I first met Yoshitada and Tomoe Unuma, aged 45 and 36, in a futuristic sports arena near Tokyo, 10 days after the tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi power station plunged into crisis on March 11 2011. The quiet-spoken couple and their 10-year-old daughter Hana had been forced to flee their farm just 2km from the plant in the coastal district of Futaba, leaving behind almost all their possessions, their pack of beloved cats and dogs and 40 cattle. After a chaotic flight south, they and more than 1,000 fellow Futaba residents had found refuge in cardboard cubicles set up in the arena’s corridors.
Those were extraordinary times in Japan. The nation was still reeling from the biggest earthquake in its recorded history and a resulting tsunami that devastated the north-east coast, killing nearly 16,000 people and leaving more than 3,000 missing. Workers, soldiers and firemen were toiling in desperate conditions to cool Fukushima Daiichi’s radiation-spewing reactors. The day after I met the Unumas, then-prime minister Naoto Kan secretly commissioned a worst-case scenario for the crisis that would raise the dreaded possibility of evacuations as far away as the megalopolis of Greater Tokyo, with its population of 35 million.
One year on, those fears have receded. Conditions at the plant have been stabilised, radiation leaks stemmed and new jury-rigged cooling systems installed. Yet for many in Japan, the crisis is far from over. More than 100,000 people are still exiled from their homes; millions more suffer the anxiety of living amid elevated levels of radiation. The failure of Fukushima Daiichi has thrown into question resource-poor Japan’s energy strategy and shaken public faith in the government.
Like all the best horror story settings, the forbidden zone around Fukushima Daiichi is a blend of the bizarre and the banal. To enter, you have to show a travel pass at police checkpoints and then stop at an outdoor processing centre where you are issued with a white suit of disposable overalls, mask, gloves and shoe covers, a thin shield against radioactive dust or mud. The irregular flow of trucks and buses bound for the plant gives a veneer of normality to a road lined with a standard Japanese suburban sprawl of automobile dealerships, noodle shops and farm produce packing centres. It is only when you look closely that you notice all the lights are off in the convenience stores and grass is poking up through cracks in the tarmac of the chain restaurants’ forecourts. Off the main road, the shallow valleys are eerily quiet. Occasionally you spot a slowly patrolling police car or a fellow visitor, also clad in a white radiation suit. Otherwise all is still, except for a circling kite in the cold blue sky.
As we turn the last corner before the Unumas’ farm, Tomoe cries out at the sight of a small group of cows that start and run at our approach. It is the first time she has seen any survivors from the family herd. These were in the fields when the Unumas fled and were later set free by animal welfare volunteers. Now they roam wild. The cows and calves stuck inside on March 11 were not so lucky. We find their corpses lining the floor of the barn in tangles of skin and exposed bone. In one pen, however, there is a panicking live cow that has returned out of habit and become trapped. Tomoe finds a tool kit to dismantle the pen’s fence, then gently shoos the cow outside. “Take your time, take your time,” she tells it. “Go and join the others.”
For the Unumas this is the strangest kind of homecoming. Futaba’s coastal villages were scoured by the tsunami, but most houses inland survived the earthquake. Now, neglect is exposing them to a more insidious kind of destruction and everything is tainted by the fear of radiation. I find in the Unumas’ home a chaotic mess, created first by the earthquake, which turned over furniture and tossed toys off shelves, and then later deepened by their rushed efforts to find prized belongings and by the defecation of abandoned pets. At least the family appears to have been spared by the burglars who looted many homes and businesses in the evacuation zone in the first months after the disaster. But the house where Tomoe’s parents lived, a long, low structure that combines living quarters and a barn for rearing calves, is already starting to sag. Its paper interior walls are torn and rot is spreading across its ceilings.