Su Grierson has sent the following report of her journey to Minamisouma City, in the heart of the Tsunami zone and near the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Su emphasises, “that all I write has been gleaned through non-professional interpreters and there is often difficulty in putting follow-up questions. However I feel it is worth recording what I hear and see.”
Su’s reports provide us with eyes and ears in a place that has suffered a catastrophic natural event with huge consequences on human technology and society. At this point we are only able to share in Su’s bearing witness, two years later, to the continued impact.
Yesterday we set off in pretty bad conditions for the long journey to Minamisouma City. As always snow that would have brought the UK to a standstill seemed to make no difference here. With winter tyres everyone seems to drive normally. We did see a couple of lorries with issues, but generally people just seem to ignore the weather. Ms Kobyashi, a curator from Izsu Kawamatsu Museum, willingly drove us for 9 hours in dreadful conditions.
The Director of Minamisouma City Museum then acted as our guide to visit the disaster area which is nearest to the nuclear disaster site. We carried radiation monitors in the car (you can buy them in the Home Centre) and although these increased as we went further in to the area, the level was mostly below that of the city Kitakata where we are staying and only once reached the daily level of the city of Oslo in Norway so nothing to worry about for us. Outside it is a different story, miles of empty houses including whole villages with cars, lorries and tractors left abandoned because they are too contaminated to be moved. The ghost towns with their traffic lights still working are an eerie and disturbing sight especially in near blizzard conditions. Houses of all sizes are left abandoned with police patrol cars driving round as protection. These black & white cars with their silent red rotating beacons add an almost holocaust atmosphere as they glide around the empty roads. Apparently the public are not allowed within the 10 km zone, but because we were in an official car it was allowed – I still got the feeling we were being followed with red lights suddenly appearing nearby. Ex residents are allowed back to visit their property in the 10 – 20 km area, but are not allowed to live there. Some are allowed to plant their land and for one year will get paid by the Government for the difference between their previous and current value – hopefully no-one would buy. Presumably this is an attempt to de-contaminate the land but I couldn’t clarify that and I also don’t know if it is only after top soil has been removed. I have to add that all I write has been gleaned through non-professional interpreters and there is often difficulty in putting follow-up questions. However I feel it is worth recording what I hear and see.
There is work already going on to remove the contaminated top soil from the rice fields and we actually drove past the site where they are to dump this stuff. No one wants to have it near them so it is being sited in the conveniently flat and empty land of the Tsunami aftermath – clearly an area which could be flooded again should the worst happen.
We drove to the broken sea wall and saw piled up broken houses and cars still rotting on the now flattened land. We saw houses that survived against all odds sometimes turned completely round and what looked like a bungalow was actually a top story of a larger house just lifted off and deposited elsewhere.
From one refugee at our house we have learned that two days after the earthquake and Tsunami the people in the two villages closest to the reactor were simply told to get out immediately, they were not told why, or where they were to go or how they were to go: just to get out. Of course word quickly spread and others in the area all started to leave as well so that the roads were blocked. There was no petrol and no one knew how far away to go. Quickly centres were set up in schools and gymnasiums but they were soon over full and lacking in food. We were told that the food was sitting in lorries at the edge of the safety zone but no drivers would bring it further. Another problem was apparently that in the interests of equality the food distributors of the centres would only hand out food if there was enough for everyone. Those making the food didn’t know how many to cater for so if they made 1,500 rice balls and there were just 1000 people then the remaining 500 would be thrown away rather than try to find a way to distribute it fairly. Of course it is easy to imagine how such stories could spread but it has been well documented that these people were hungry. They didn’t want to leave before finding out if family were alive or located, which was in turn made very difficult by the fact that there was very little mobile or internet connection.
Again we were told that after a short time the government announced that all refugees could travel without paying the hefty toll charges on the motorways but since they had no identification they had to argue their case at each toll station. They were also given a code to get free cash from ATM machines to help them travel. When I see all the contaminated cars that cannot now be moved I wonder what state the cars were in when the refugees left in them – and that they are still driving round. Our refugee also heard that ferries would be free so he drove north to get the ferry to Hokkaido but the ferry company had not received official instructions so would not let him travel. He spent two nights in the waiting room there, with local people bringing him food, before turning back. He stayed in eight different places before a friend told him about this place – where Yoshoko and I are also now staying.
It is hearing the personal experiences that brings home the enormous difficulty that any country in a similar situation would face. Even after two years some refugees (I don’t know what percentage) do not know what their compensation will be. The paperwork is so complex that even with support some are unable to cope and are walking away without claiming. Others are fighting for a better deal. We are told that charities are making all household goods available free of cost to refugees so that they can furnish a new house when they get it, but the temporary houses are so small they have nowhere to store it.
On the Japanese news last night a programme showed 6 Nuclear reactors that have been found to be straddling actively moving fault lines and I am told that one of these is still in production (but that needs to be verified). Even if these sites are closed presumably they all still contain radioactive core material. With all but two of their reactors shut down, Japan has very high electricity costs and people are extremely cautious about its use. But if they really want to make a difference then they have to insulate their houses and start using renewables which are almost non-existent here at the moment.
It seems to me that there are so many issues it is almost impossible to imagine how any country can cope. The scale of all this is so huge it is only by seeing it that any idea of scale can really be imagined. I was told that in this Province there are 100,000 refuges and 200,000 in the next Province and they are in many other areas besides.
The great thing about Japan, which could help, is that so much seems to happen at a local and community level: small scale village businesses and food production; people who share their expertise with others and a general feeling of willingness and helpfulness – especially towards us as visitors. As everywhere, local Government comes in for a lot of criticism. But I have to say that in this very small village there is a beautiful modern Government-funded community centre, and others villages nearby have the same. They not only allowed me to use their splendid kitchen free of charge to make scones for an event for Refugees, but the staff insisted in coming in to help – interesting as we had no shared language at all!
So tomorrow we artists are giving a presentation at a Refugee camp about Scotland and Norway. We are providing Norwegian fish soup for lunch – with rice balls – and tea and scones and flapjacks for afternoon tea. Goodness knows how that will work out but hopefully they wont know what scones should really look and taste like. Japanese ingredients and helpers have added a little variety to the final outcome.
More images from the Residency can be found on three Facebook pages:
http://www.facebook.com/SeishinNoKitae (spirit of north)