Iwaki City, Fukushima: Report from the Stricken Area


Iwaki City, Fukushima: Report from the Stricken Area
(Translation by Umi Hagitani)

I visited Iwaki City, Fukushima on April 16th. I hadn’t been there since the earthquake. I went there to play a gig. “We don’t want our show to be a part of the Stay Strong Fukushima campaign. We want nuclear power plant to be the theme of the event,” K, who organized the show, said to me. I too was personally irritated that Tokyo doesn’t listen to what Fukushima really has to say. In Iwaki, the coastal area has been devastated by tsunamis, and the northern part, close to the nuclear power plant, is designated as a zone where people are required to take shelter and stay indoor. I wanted to feel and see with my own eyes what folks from this area think about nuclear plant. With these thoughts in mind, I headed to Fukushima.

Seeing My Friends Faces, I Felt Relieved…

It had been several months since my last visit to downtown Iwaki. The town wasn’t so devastated except for the gaps in the roads, or patches of blue plastic sheets covering the broken roofs where the bricks had fallen off. What I noticed more was people wearing masks on the street. The Japanese government has developed campaigns throughout Fukushima, to trivialize the catastrophes of the nuclear incidents. None of the residents is so foolish as to take it for granted. But many are upset and confused because they want to bring their lives back to what they used to be (wanting to believe that things are alright), at the same time, they have suspicions and distrustful of the government and TEPCO (doubting that anything is alright).

There is only one music club in downtown Iwaki. Its owner runs a PA company where he rents PAs and sends operators for events. His business has been ruined by the earthquake, but the club has survived and become a temporary shelter for the local musicians since. While trying to find funding to reopen the club, the only job offer he found was for an event to promote the nuclear power plant. “I am against nuclear power!”, he yelled and declined the offer.

At the moment all the staff operate the club as volunteers, and they organize free gigs daily. All the staff members are male. Those with family members have already let their wives and kids evacuate  Fukushima, and remained in Iwaki on their own. Although my friends who I hadn’t long seen had smiles on their faces, they’ve all got anxiety over their living situation; some lost their houses, some lost jobs, some suffer from motion sickness of aftershocks. “We are very thankful that you came all the way, because we wouldn’t expect that at this time of nuclear crisis,” some said to our band. When the organizers requested Tokyo musicians to come, many declined because it was “too scary” for them to come to Fukushima, and they “didn’t know what was going to happen to the power plant.”

K, one of the organizers of the event that day, had taken shelter at my house in Tokyo a week after the earthquake and nuclear accident. It took him a week to make it our to Tokyo because of the lack of gasoline in his town. But after several days of evacuation, K went back to Iwaki. He needed to talk to contractors about fixing his house, and had to negotiate with his banks for loans. Since K works at the local post office, once the office resumes its operation, he will have to deal with receiving and delivering piles of donated supplies. On top of it, he feels repulsed to TEPCO and local administration. Since he was involved in the struggle against the construction of Fukushima Daini (second) Power Plant when he was seventeen, he knows too well how the people against the nuclear plant get harassed by TEPCO and its supporters. When the nuclear accident took place, supporters of nuclear power were the first to flee Fukushima, leaving other residents behind. At the same time, an old man, who had been excluded from his native Futabacho-town as well as from his workplace for his adamant rejection of the power plants during the dispute over the construction, now came back in town after the quake and walked around urging remaining residents to evacuate the town.

To the Disaster-stricken Area on the Coastal Line

The day after our performance at the club in Iwaki, K drove us around to see the stricken area along the coastline. I’d heard media reports saying that “many gawkers were coming to Iwaki from Tokyo” but I only saw vehicles with Iwaki number plates. There were so many closed roads from vehicular traffic, and it would be difficult for people without a sense of local geography to get into the devastated area that was stricken by tsunami.

When we cut through the gradually recovering downtown area to the tsunami-stricken harbor area, the scenery suddenly changed. Onahama port, which used to flourish with fish market, was now a mass of piled up rubbles and trash that have been carried out from fallen buildings. Restaurants and fish processing plants are all destroyed. We by-passed many closed roads, and went further north along the beach. The condition was getting worse and worse as we approached smaller port towns (Toyoma, Usuiso, and Yotsukura) where no media reporters have reached. Ships and boats capsized, houses destroyed, villages burnt down to coal due to the fire after tsunamis, houses that we could not recognize if not for barely remaining foundations and endless heaps of rubble(…) After more than a month since the earthquake, these ruins remain untouched looking like a bombed landscape.

We maneuvered between heaps of rubble where a car could barely make it through. Old folks gathered their relatives, slowly moving pieces of wood and boards, walking dully. We noticed that there were surprisingly few volunteers helping and very small number of heavy machines cleaning up the rubbles. The volunteer coordinating offices in Iwaki city are dysfunctional as they are forced to refuse accepting new volunteers from outside of Iwaki and Fukushima. On the contrary, these offices even interfere with the volunteers who are willing to work independently. Even K who lives in Iwaki city has a hard time delivering donation supplies such as picture books and snacks to shelters. We saw notes attached to some buildings that read, “[the local administration] allows that this building be dismantled”, following the public order to the residents  whose houses were destroyed. I couldn’t express how I felt when I read a note saying “pending” attached to the houses that in fact looked totally destroyed. What simply looked like a piled up pebbles in my eye actually used to be a place of everyday life to some people. In addition, I felt the reality that the nuclear disaster is causing an on-going catastrophe and making further devastations past earthquakes and tsunamis.

I was astonished to see, however, that ships were still moored in the middle of these overwhelming scenes. Any fisher in Japan (my father is a fisherman too, by the way) would know that When your port is hit by tsunami, all fish boat must go offshore. Looking at the surviving boats I thought instinctively, “If there are so many boats remaining, they can manage to live off of fishing along the shore with saved fishing nets.” Ship owners must have crawled over the tsunami waves to protect their families and their lives, fighting a fear. But the sea itself has been taken away from fishing buisiness because of the water discharged from the nuclear reactors, contaminated with radiation. I cannot even begin to imagine how torn those fishers might feel. I can look back now, how I processed my thoughts at that moment. I could imagine the revival of fishing because ports had been cleaned up unlike the piled up rubble in residential areas. There seemed to be enough space to unload fish. It seemed as if they could start going offshore to fish again any time if they wish to. Ships and people are waiting for the day to start working again.

In Kunohama district, 18 miles away from the power plant, I found billboards made of pieces of tatami wrecked by the tsunami, on which every word was hand-painted, filled with rage, and resonated to my heart. Because the city announced the “safety” of this district soon after the nuclear accidents, the local residents were not able to evacuate, but at the same time no donations or volunteers reached this area since it was deemed close enough to the power plant. I heard that similar kind of messages on billboards began appearing increasingly around April. As we drove by, we saw many voices in rage against the government, scribbled on pieces of found materials and woods. Mass media do not distribute any of these voices, but it is these people of Fukushima who have a lot to say.

1: We don’t want nuclear power! (Genshiryoku Iranai!)
2: Are you gonna kill the people of your own country? (Kokumin Korosu Ki ka?)
3: Take the reactors somewhere else with you. (Genpatsu dokoka e motteke)
4: Locals are exposed to radiation. (Jimotonin Hibaku Naru)

We found an open-air market at Michi-no-eki (a roadside rest station along highways where the local government promote local produce and tourism) in Yotsukura. All the broken windows were covered with traditional fishing flags that read: “a good haul”. Of course we didn’t find any of their famous marine products. They didn’t have much to sell except barbecued frozen yakitori (grilled chicken), fruits and pastry. It looked like they had gathered anything they could sell. At the free section lined up red and black randoserus (designated school bags for elementary schoolers). A girl of about 10 years old, picked one and carried it on her back, looking happy. They also sold canned juice and bottled liquor that they apparently dug out from the sand after the tsunami and wiped the dirt off each of them by hand. I could not open the cap of bottled shochu (distilled liquor) we bought because of there was so much sand stuck inside the cap. We kept turning the cap around and around (…).

The Focal Point: “To Remain or Not to Remain”

During our journey, K told me what happened in his community. When one of K’s band members, whose job is to clean up heavy machinery, arrived at his work site one morning, he was suddenly ordered to put a NBC suit on, and was forced to clean up vehicles used in the power plant during the nuclear accidents. There was no prior explanation given to him. He saw tents nearby, where day labors were sleeping exhausted from the lack of decent meals and extreme working condition. He saw TEPCO employees chatting with each other in padded cars, doing nothing. Those TEPCO employees only came out of their cars when media and parliament members made visits, in order to show them  how hard they worked. When K’s friend saw this whole thing, he had an urge to “kill them”.

As far as K knows, a day labor who takes care of the nucler reactors after the accidents gets 15,000 yen (US$130) at highest, and 9,000 yen (US$80) at lowest. Who on the earth  could exploit these workers in such ways? K happens to know a TEPCO employee, who himself evacuated Fukushima with his family but pretended that they were still in Iwaki, tweeting “Iwaki is alright. Everything is safe” on and on. When K accused him on twitter, the TEPCO employee immediately terminated his account.

Because there are so many stories like this among the residents in Iwaki City, they talk almost exclusively about whether they should “leave” or “remain” in the city.

The night before we left Iwaki for Tokyo, we stopped by a tripe barbecue restaurant near the Iwaki train station. The restaurant looked totally normal, but everybody there talked about earthquakes, tsunamis, and nuclear accidents. The local TV station constantly broadcasted the radiation measurements  in various areas, and announced in which areas issuing certifications of victims was necessary. Of course, none of these topics are reported in Tokyo. From every little corner in the restaurant, we heard “such and such milli-Sieverts” or “Geiger counter this and that.” I almost cut into the conversation when I overheard youngsters talk about anti-nuke protests.  As we were leaving the restaurant, the middle aged woman who runs the place on her own said to us: “no worries for radiation here, come by again!” We had really cheap and delicious tripe barbecue there. We will drop by again, even if nothing is alright!

It was sprinkling next morning. All the school children wore a mask, a raincoat and had an umbrella on their way to school. On April 15th, the Japanese government increased the ‘safety’ measure of radiation exposure for children to 20 milli-Sieverts per year. This number exceeds the standard measure to authorize workers’ compensation for industrial workers how are diagnosed with leukemia. At many schools the level of radiation issued was as high as levels in “the radiation control zone” where the government mandated its residents to evacuate. Parents and guardians have demanded that local governments wait to reopen schools, but the Japanese federal government ordered the Fukushima Board of Education to resume classes. There are reports that the residents in some areas were forced to sign a pledge: “If anything happens, the school will not be responsible for the matter”.

We have to ask ourselves how to create solidarity in realistic way with the folks in Fukushima who are not able to come to Tokyo to speak out. There are two urgent tasks: The first is to demand TEPCO and the government that they take their responsibility, and force them to reconsider their nuclear policy. This includes having children take refuge in safer places with sufficient guarantees for their daily lives. The second is to provide medical and social aids to those who decide to remain in Fukushima. It is inevitable for us to expect an increasing number of children with disabilities or pediatric cancer. We must think of how to compensate the damage on them as well as to establish their human rights. This will be a big task here in Fukushima in the coming years.

When I said goodbye to K in front of the Iwaki train station, he smiled at me and said: “If anything happens, I will run away to Tokyo again. So it’s gonna be alright.” Shortly after I came back to Tokyo, he called me to say: “we’re planning to do an anti-nuke music festival in Fukushima this summer, at an outdoor site as close to the power plant as possible.” I think this guy might drop by Tokyo, but seems like he would never move to live here. I will continue dropping by Iwaki to say hi. I will go back there as much as I can, and, though the day may never come, until we can eat Mehikari (lizardfish) and Ankou (monkfish) with no worries.

PDF (English)


福島県いわき市: 被災地レポート (文・さっちゃん)




















PDF (日本語)

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