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After Fukushima, part 5

Outside the west entrance of the Fukushima city train station are vast bike parking lots, mostly used by commuters who bike then train to work. Hiroshi Watanabe is a bike lot attendant. His job, ten hours a day, seven days a week, is to keep the bikes neat. After his morning sweeping, his work involves precisely aligning each bicycle with the lines painted on the ground

Returning from the Fukushima Exclusion Zone one day, I meet Hiroshi Watanabe outside the train station. I watch with fascination as he straightens each bike in the bike parking lot where he works. Wearing white gloves, he moves very precisely: he measures a distance with his shoes, then grabs the next bike and stands it parallel with the previous one, tall and evenly spaced.

The phrase ‘rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic’ keeps popping into my mind as I photograph Watanabe. This isn’t really fair, I admit, since Fukushima City is not about to sink. But why does the municipality spend money on parallel parking of bikes while people remain in crisis mode nearby and so many evacuees' needs go unmet?

The answer, I think, is that the psychological effects of a disaster travel further and less predictably than the physical ones. The residents of Fukushima—whether directly affected by the earthquake or not—crave normalcy. They want reassurance that Things Are As They Should Be. (See interesting commentary here). In the U.S., we would never notice a chaotic bike rack, but in Japan, it’s just not right.

Watching Watanabe reminds me of a woman I met in Ukraine whose job is gardener at the Chernobyl plant. She maintains window boxes, planters and a big beautiful rose garden outside the main building entrance. Seems crazy, I know. But after all, if you work there, you want Chernobyl to look neat and attractive for visitors, don’t you?

Tomorrow: what is true?

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