Reflections: Hope and Anxiety

Obon dancers

By Jon Funabiki, Executive Director, Dilena Takeyama Center

What is it like to live in the aftermath of disaster? For the people of Fukushima, it means sleepless nights recalling the punishing jolt and “Iron Wave” that ravaged their homes and families. It means anxiety over the ever-present radiation contamination left from a wrecked nuclear power plant. For tens of thousands of people still in temporary housing shelters, it simply means four years living in limbo.

And yet the post-disaster period also is a time to find new jobs, to marry and raise children and to reinvigorate the summer o-bon and other longstanding traditions. Many residents – and even some people from outside the disaster region – have dedicated their lives to rebuilding and revitalizing their communities.

These are the contrasting experiences of the people of Fukushima. They are challenging the odds as if to declare,

“We are here.”

This is what a delegation of San Francisco State University faculty and students learned during a trip to Japan in August, 2014. They were sponsored by the Dilena Takeyama Center to capture the stories of the people of Fukushima and help Americans understand the ongoing impact of the triple disaster that occurred on March 11, 2011.

On that day a monster 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck the Japan’s Tohoku coastal region and triggered a tsunami that wreaked havoc on towns, villages, farmlands and fishing fleets in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures. Then the “Iron Wave” smacked the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant, causing a meltdown, explosions and the release of plumes of radioactivity. Over all, nearly 16,000 people were killed and more than 6,100 injured. In the immediate aftermath, more than 492,000 people were displaced – run out of town because of physical danger, government evacuation orders and fear.

All of this was covered worldwide by the news media. The Internet and social media were flooded by personal stories, mobile phone videos, pleas for help and cries of disbelief. As with many other disasters, the “3-11” disaster dominated headlines around the world for many months, especially as officials struggled to stave off further catastrophe at the crippled nuclear power plant. As with other disasters, news coverage and public awareness dwindled over time as the crisis appeared, at least on the surface, to subside.

Knowing that it can take years and decades to recover from a disaster, we wondered: What has happened to these people? How are they coping in the post-disaster period? How have their lives been disrupted, and what’s happened to their communities? What are their hopes for the future?

The trip was made possible by an invitation from William McMichael, assistant director of the International Centre at Fukushima University. McMichael developed the Ambassadors’ Program to enable college students from around the world to gain an in-person look at the post-disaster recovery process. Of the three prefectures impacted, Fukushima suffered the smallest number of casualties—1,613. However, Fukushima is burned into people’s memories because of the nuclear power plant and ongoing fear of radiation. The university, which is in the city of Fukushima, about 36 miles inland from the power plant, has a vested interested in seeing the region recover and thrive.

Through a competitive process, a team of five advanced journalism students and one Japanese language student were chosen to participate. Guadalupe González, Gavin McIntyre, Lorisa Salvatin, Debbie Svoboda and Natalie Yemenidjian represented the Journalism Department, and Corinne Morier, the Japanese program. The group was as diverse as America: the four women and two men included an African American, Mexican American, Armenian American, Filipina American and two white students. None had previously visited Japan, and Morier was the only one of the students who could speak Japanese.

Colleague Sachi Cunningham, an assistant professor of journalism, and I led the team. In addition, we invited Ali Budner, a radio reporter who produced a documentary about food safety in Fukushima that was broadcast by KALW Public Radio.

The students spent two weeks in Fukushima under the program organized by William McMichael, assistant director of the Fukushima University International Centre. They produced a number of stories, photographs, videos and multimedia accounts about the people they met. Highlights can be viewed on special project website, This report is based on our experiences and some of the stories produced by the students. The Dilena Takeyama Center received a grant from the Sasakawa Peace Foundation of Tokyo for travel and other project expenses.

bags of oil

Arriving in Fukushima, a visitor is first struck by this impression: In contrast to the images of death and destruction that flooded the airwaves in 2011, life seems normal. Many of the scenes could have been mistaken for an American suburb, complete with busy shopping malls, sports fields and highways. People are working, children are back in school. At night, the restaurants and karaoke clubs are busy. Japan’s famed bullet train can whisk you between Fukushima and Tokyo in 1 ½ hours.

Government officials insist the reopened areas are safe – the radiation danger is minimal; the water is safe to drink; and all foods grown in the agriculturally rich region are tested for radiation before going to market. “I believe it is very safe,” said Aoki Hitoshi, a technical adviser who staffs the Decontamination Information Plaza, one of the city’s efforts to allay residents’ anxieties.

But it doesn’t take long to detect the disturbing remnants of disaster. Radiation monitors are stationed throughout the region, including on the campus of Fukushima University. Supermarket shoppers check labels on fruits and vegetables to make sure they have tested free of radiation. In the countryside nearer the coast, vast tracts of land remain closed because the government hasn’t finished clearing the debris – wrecked cars and boats, damaged buildings and roads – or restored power and water. And, the areas closest to the crippled nuclear power plant remain closed, except for those workers and officials who need to monitor the plant in the event of another emergency.

One of the most ominous and pervasive images are the big, black plastic bags that are filled with radioactive-contaminated soil that has been scraped from the ground as part of the massive clean-up campaign. The soil has been collected from parks, playgrounds, roadways and the gardens around buildings and homes. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the Japanese government doesn’t yet have a plan for what to do next. Who would want the contaminated soil to be stored near them? So for now, the 1.5-ton bags are ubiquitous. Small mounds are stored alongside houses and roads, and giant stacks the size of little mountains fill vacant lots and the shoulders of highways. The Japanese government estimates that 30 million cubic meters of contaminated soil ultimately will need to be collected and stored. Miyahara Kaname of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission said this process could take three decades. But the question of where to store the contaminated soil remains unanswered.

Tomoya School

And then there are the temporary housing shelters. At the time of our visit, 80,000 Japanese men, women and children throughout Tohoku still hadn’t found permanent housing. Many of them were living in vast temporary developments where prefabricated apartments look like pale, steel boxes lined up in orderly rows on asphalt parking lots. They are clean, tidy and tight: The typical unit has a tiny bathroom, kitchenette and a small, squarish room with tatami mats for living, dining and sleeping. One young mother teared up as she described the frustration of raising a child in such cramped quarters. There are no playgrounds, and the shelter frowns on children playing outside because it might disturb some neighbors. “He stays inside a lot,” she said. “Once in awhile, some neighbors complain about the noise from children—like fishermen, who sleep during the day.”

While some residents have jobs, many are elderly – one site had 312 residents with an average age of 55—and have few options for the future. Recreational and community activities–dance classes, handicrafts and o-bon festivities in the summer– breathe life into the shelters. In the mornings, the hearty residents, mostly women, exercise with enthusiasm to the sound of recorded music on the asphalt parking lot. On some days, a portable grill is used to cook batches of yakisoba noodles to be shared in the community center. Volunteers make a habit of checking in on the more reclusive residents. Every apartment has a red light that can be flicked on in case a resident has an emergency. A shelter leader explained that the older residents’ biggest fear is to die alone.

Dr. Sae Ochi, Director of Internal Medicine at Soma Central Hospital, warned that the evacuation lifestyle is dangerous because it contributes to serious physical and mental health problems. Lack of jobs, exercise and poor diet lead to obesity and diabetes. Stress and anxiety can sometimes lead to death, sometimes by suicide. The impact of these factors can be seen in this startling fact: The number of people who died during the disaster—1,613—in Fukushima Prefecture has now been eclipsed by the number of post-disaster fatalities – 1,793 – attributed to declining health, diabetes, stress, suicides and other “indirect” causes related to the disaster.

Even before the disaster, there were worries about mental health conditions in the Tohoku region, according to a study, “Public Health Recovery After the Great East Japan Earthquake” by the Center for Community Health at the Tohoku University Graduate School of Medicine. “Tohoku residents are also known throughout Japan as being a characteristically reserved group of people who do not readily express their feelings,” said the report. “There is a significant amount of stigma associated with mental health conditions, so people are less likely to seek assistance, and in addition, prior to the tsunami, access to community level mental health services in Tohoku was limited compared to the rest of Japan.”

Though much of Fukushima has bounced back from the disaster, the black plastic bags and the temporary housing shelters symbolize the work that still needs to be done. There is a see-saw nature to life in Fukushima. But even as the past invades the future, hope can temper gloom.

Another symbol of this uneasy reality is Tomoya Jr. High School, a public middle school that hugs the coast north of the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant. March 11, 2011, was graduation day, and ceremonies were held in the big gymnasium Afterwards, many students went home for the spring break while others remained for club activities

At 2:46 p.m., the earthquake struck, jolting the teachers into action. The teachers rounded up all the students and evacuated. With the ocean across the street, the school had conducted planning and drills for just such an occasion. They had 20 minutes to reach safety. Marching in a single-file line, they headed away from the ocean and hiked up to hilltop park that overlooked the school and the ocean.

From that vantage point, they watched as giant waves roared up from the ocean and washed over their school. They watched as homes were carried away. The students and teachers, shivering in a light snowfall, stayed at the park until they thought it was safe enough to climb back down and seek refuge in a nearby elementary school.

Thanks to the quick action, all the students survived. The school, however, lay in shambles. The gymnasium took the brunt of the damage and has been condemned. The clock froze at 3:27 p.m. The sturdier, main building of classrooms held up better. Rooms on the second floor are stuffed with furniture, school trophies and all kinds of personal affects volunteers recovered from the area after the tsunami: family photo albums, teddy bears, greeting cards and Disneyland souvenirs that washed out of the destroyed homes.

Takahara Toshihiko, who is now the principal of Tomoya Jr. High School, said that they would like to return the personal items to their owners. But he’s heard stories that some people can’t bear to take them back. “I wonder why so many photo albums are here,” he said. “They don’t want them. It’s hard and sad.”

The same dilemma shrouds the school itself, which is locked up right now. The gymnasium will have to be torn down, but families are deeply split about whether to keep the main structure or to abandon it.

“Some want to keep it, some don’t want it,” said Takahara-san. “It’s very hard to see. They get flashbacks about the tragedy.”

Meanwhile, in one of the third-grade classrooms, no one has erased the notes that people wrote on a chalkboard to celebrate the end of the school year:

     We love you!

     Thank you for three years.

     Let’s all move ahead with smiles.

Peach Farmer

Then there are the warriors of hope – ordinary people who are standing their ground. One of them is Katahira Shinichi, a peach farmer.

Fukushima is famous for its peaches, pears, rice – Japan’s staple – and many other crops.

Katahira-san wore a Honda baseball cap and a plain white T-shirt while he told his story under the shade of his trees. Fukushima’s hot summers and cold winters are ideal for raising fruit, such as the bright pink and yellow Chinese peaches that hang from the trees and that are wrapped in paper to protect them from insects and bruising. Katahira-san took over the orchard, which practically vibrates with the sound of summer cicadas, from his father.

While the radiation that spewed out of Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant could have spelled doom, the fourth-generation farmer decided he couldn’t give in.

“The reality began to sink in about the food safety,” he explained. “We had to think how to make sure our fruit was safe so we could continue to sell our product.”

Thus began the painstaking work to decontaminate the orchard. After consulting with experts, Katahira-san pressure-washed every tree to knock off any radioactive particles. Then, the top layer of soil and any fallen leaves, branches and other debris had to be dug up and buried 600 meters away. The radioactive-free ground is now covered with blankets of heavy-duty foil to prevent recontamination.

Radiation monitoring has shown the orchard to be safe. But to persuade consumers that the local products can be eaten, crops like Katahira-san’s peaches are tested for radiation before they go to market. Farmers of rice – Japan’s staple – are taking the same precautions. However, overcoming consumer fears and the stigma left by the disaster may be the biggest hurdle for Fukushima farmers. To allay those fears, the government has banned farming in the most highly contaminated areas and imposed strict standards on foods headed for market or export. The prefectural government has mounted public relations campaigns to convince consumers that food products on the market are safe to eat.

“This is an opportunity to rethink and redesign,” he resolved. “We must do this, without question.”

Chiba Katsuichi

Another fighter is Chiba Katsuichi. On Friday, March 11, 2011, Chiba-san was taking a day off from work to be with his family in Fukushima. It was his 58th birthday—the day that changed his life.

Shocked by the calamity, Chiba-san resigned his job in Tokyo at a medical equipment division of HP Japan, where he had worked for 27 years, which kept him away from family. Today, he’s found a new mission for his life.

The project he has chosen is high up in the mountains southwest of Fukushima, where the Tsuchiyu Hot Springs provide endless supplies of scalding hot water for the famed onsen, or hot springs baths. The onsen are ingrained in traditional Japanese life, providing a peaceful respite in the bitter winters and welcome relief in the hot, sticky summers when the resorts sponsor o-bon, the dance festival that honors ancestors.

But tourism and business generally have been on the decline ever since the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power plant disaster. People remain afraid that Fukushima is dangerous and that food and water might still be contaminated. Six of the region’s 16 onsen have had to close.

Chiba-san’s idea is to tap the hot springs for new resources. You can see what he and his partners are up to along the banks of a gurgling river where big pipes are sunk into the earth to capture hot water and vents of steam spout into the air. It looks like an inventor’s backyard set in the romantic setting of the tree-studded mountains.

Joining forces with the owners of the onsen and other partners, they are building a geothermal-powered turbine that they hope will produce cheap electricity for the mountain resorts. It’s a hulking set of tanks, pipes and gauges. Already, the onsen owners have signed on. Nearby, there’s a small plastic-covered nursery warmed by hot water. It’s a pilot for larger structures that could be used to grow crops. On the drawing boards is an idea for a fish farm with heated water that will help fish grow faster.

“Birthdays used to be a time to celebrate with my grandchildren,” he laments. “Now it’s a day that we pray and pay respects for those who died.”

Fukuda Akira is another ambassador for the Fukushima region. He is retired, and he helps his wife operate a small spa out of their two-story house in Soma City, which is right on the tsunami-ravaged coastline. During the Dilena Takeyama Center tour of Fukushima, local families hosted our students for home stays so that they could experience everyday Japanese life. The Fukudas volunteered to open their home to two of our students, Guadalupe González and Gavin McIntyre.

González, who wrote a story about Fukuda-san, described him as a quiet, but friendly man with a gentle smile. Fukuda-san spoke only limited English, and González and McIntyre spoke no Japanese, so their verbal exchanges were only brief.

“Why are you hosting us?” González asked.

Fukuda-san responded simply: “I want foreigners to come to Soma.”

Nevertheless, as González related in his story, Fukuda-san’s strong feelings for his home became evident. On one of the days, Fukuda-san brought the two students to a temporary housing shelter where he volunteered to help residents organize their o-bon festival. Fukuda-san joined the dancing.

“The more I got to know the man, the more I admired his citizenry and understood his appreciation of his community,” recalled González. “His stiff position loosened up as he joined the communal circle of dance. He seemed to want to dance as much as he seemed to want to be there and volunteer.”

González asked Fukuda-san why he was helping the shelter residents.

“Because it makes them happy,” he said.

Towards the end of the visit, Fukuda-san drove the students to the top of a nearly barren cliff overlooking the ocean. González said that Fukuda-san explained that a tract of homes had once existed on the cliff. The residents never expected that a tsunami could reach them, so they failed to evacuate. They were wiped out, and Fukuda-san said he knew some of the victims.

Fukuda-san then drove them to another nearby location that also had been overrun by the tsunami. Overgrown with vegetation, it did not seem much different than the first site and there was not much to see.

“But he brought us specifically here to show us a tree,” González recalled. “It was the only thing that stood after the tsunami. He said the townspeople saw it as a sign of hope. Not all is lost.”

These are some of the contrasting stories that the students captured and experienced. The emotions behind the stories swung like a pendulum from hope to sorrow. Natalie Yemenidjian recalls how one of Fukushima University’s volunteer student interpreters told her how he was caught on a train when the earthquake hit, and that today he has a “deep fear” of trains. Corinne Morier relates the story of a woman who had to trade in her life on a farm for one of the apartments in a temporary housing shelter. “So many things have happened in the three years, six months since the earthquake, that I’ve cried more than a few times,” said the woman.

Their experiences are balanced by people like Fukuda-san, Katahira-san and Chiba-san who have resolved to move forward. There also was Hanzawa Keiichi, who operates one of Fukushima’s 28 food monitoring stations where residents can bring in their garden fruits and vegetables for radiation testing to allay their fears. Still another example is Eiju Hangai, a former executive of TEPCO, the operator of the nuclear power plant, who decided to open a nonprofit center to encourage Fukushima children to explore ideas for green energy. “What’s needed for the future,” he explained, “is some new way for sustainability.”

Thus, it should not be surprising that the six students expressed mixed emotions about the situation in Fukushima.

“I must admit that I’m slightly pessimistic about Fukushima,” said Morier, the Japanese language student. “It’s been four years since the disaster, and it doesn’t seem like much as improved. I never see any news articles or anything about Fukushima, and it doesn’t seem like the Japanese government has done much, either.”

González, on the other hand, said he was optimistic because the resilience he saw in people like the Fukuda couple in Soma City. “I am optimistic for the people of Fukushima,” he said. “While we were there, they showed great strength and resilience. The hardships have not ended (and) I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to start one’s life again, but I believe the worst has passed.”

Each student said the experience impacted them in deep ways. “Every time I think back on the trip, I smile,” said Lorisa Salvatin.

“I remember the heart-wrenching stories and the cordial people and the beautiful people.”

Cunningham described the Fukushima experience as “life changing” for the students, and noted that some of them began to immediately plot ways to do more international travel.

cleanup of overgrown weeds

On the seventh day, we were asked to help a nonprofit organization that coordinates volunteers who want to participate in Fukushima’s recovery. The target was a rural home, and our assignment was to clear the badly overgrown weeds and vegetation that covered the hillside and two small rice paddies. The house was owned by an 80-year-old man who was evacuated, and it was not known when he might be able to return to the house. We were given weed-whackers, clippers and rakes.

At the start, the assignment seemed almost impossible to accomplish. The students worked quietly, diligently and without complaint despite the heat and humidity that marked a typical Japanese summer. Weeds were cut down and raked into bundles that resembled small bales of hay. Some frogs, lizards and bugs fell victim to the weed-whackers. By mid-day, the students could see that their labors were having an impact. By the end of the day the land was cleared. Sweat and mud clung to their clothes. The physical activity gave everyone time to reflect on what they had heard and experienced. It became clear to all of us that the task of weeding a hillside home shrank to the size of a dot when compared to the enormity of the work needed to rebuild Fukushima and restore the health – physical and emotional – of its people.

At the end of that hot seventh day, some of our students wrote short reflections about what was going through their minds. McIntyre wrote this:

When we got there the weeds had covered the entire area, and the only visible sign of residency were spiders in their web that had been created since the evacuation. The three-story house could not be seen from the road. Lost in the weeds it seemed as though it would be impossible to make any possible difference. After hours of chopping and pulling weeds from the path to the house it started to seem as though we were actually accomplishing something in an area that hasn’t had much success in a long time.

On our way back home I found out that the residents wouldn’t be coming home for another year and half. In my mind, all I thought was that the work we had done was meaningless that the weeds that we had just cut down would be back again. But then a thought crossed my mind. Over the last week we have heard about how evacuees are suffering from stress-related deaths because they have received little to no help to cope with their suffering. So, if my actions no matter how meaningless they may possibly be if I could relieve worry from their minds, or just show them that there are people out there who care about them, then it was all worth it.

Several months later, I asked McIntyre what he took away from his time in Fukushima.

“It was a sad and wonderful experience,” he said. “I met a lot of polite people who are trying to help the communities. However, a lot of people felt forgotten and didn’t know what was next for them. There’s still a lot to be one in Fukushima, and leaving felt a little like we were leaving them behind.

“I thought about my purpose as a journalist. I’m there to witness something, and show it to people who can’t, so that perhaps change might happen.”