Blog posts


After Fukushima, part 4

Students and workers commute to school and work through Sakaemachi neighborhood in downtown Fukushima City.
The post-apocalyptic is not immediately obvious in Fukushima City. You may be disappointed but I am not surprised.
One evening, I exit the Fukushima train station into East Fukushima Square, past the old men sitting on a bus stop bench smoking cigarettes, past schoolgirls pushing their bikes and the swirls of starlings among the treetops. I walk past the Freshness Burger stand and past the casino belching 80s pop music and the chimes and dings of slots machines. Past the Mr. Donuts shop with the free sample donut holes on the front counter. Across from my hotel, I duck into a 7–11 to get some sushi. Everywhere, people are out enjoying the summer evening.

Fukushima Prefecture has a total population of nearly 2 million. Yes, 1,817 people were killed or missing here after the earthquake and tsunami (1) and yes, about 150,000 remain displaced by the tsunami and nuclear disaster (2) including some 30,000 to 60,000 who have left the province entirely (3, 4).

Nevertheless, the city still has 290,000 residents going about their business. Consider that the city is 35 miles—over winding mountain roads—from the tsunami-wrecked coast, and 52 miles from the nuclear power plant. It’s only from afar that Fukushima Prefecture, Fukushima city and Fukushima Daiichi seem synonymous.

After any disaster, there are three groups of people: the dead, those whose lives will never be the same, and those who are eager to return to normalcy. That line between victim and bystander can be razor-thin. Some who had close calls want to help, while others shrug and move on.

Consider an example closer to home. In NYC the week after Hurricane Sandy, the people of Far Rockaway, Queens, were flooded out of their homes. Fifteen miles away in Brooklyn, people used flashlights and recharged phones from shared extension cords, while in midtown Manhattan, life sailed on unperturbed. Now five months later, Rockaway residents are still dealing with mold and FEMA. In Brooklyn they have good stories to tell, and in Manhattan, if anything, they get miffed about subway delays.

Fukushima City is a place trying hard to find the new normal. You can find signs of the disaster but you must know where to look. Here and there are public dosimeters announcing the current radiation level the way a bank thermometer shows the temperature. Here is a woman wearing a mask and gloves while she weeds. Over there is an overgrown highway shoulder which municipal workers have refused to mow. Here, a vacant lot where an earthquake-damaged building was torn down.

Tomorrow: Fukushima City continued.

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