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After Fukushima, part 12

Except for laundry, the outside of the Ide’s apartment block in the temporary housing complex is colorless: gray gravel, black asphalt, beige aluminum siding. There is just one spot of green visible between here and the treetops on a distant hill: Mamoru Suzuki is bent over his bonsai, watering and pulling off dying leaves. Dozens of pots cascade off his steps and along the wall as far as his neighbor’s door. More of his plants line the far end of the building.

Compared to his boisterous neighbors, Suzuki moves as quietly as a whisper. So shy we can barely hear him speak, he looks like he wishes he could vanish, or shrivel up like the brown leaf in his hand. After a few false starts, I ask about his plants and he proudly begins to explain. He tells us how he cares for the delicate tiny trees and shrubs, and discusses uses of the flowers and herbs.

Bit by bit his story comes out. Like his neighbors, Suzuki was a farmer in Kawauchi. He is wiry and must be over 70 but moves like a younger man. He owned seven cows, he says, but he had to kill them all after the radiation came. For a time he lived here with his family of five, but they left to move further north, to Fukushima city. They tell him their new housing is much better up there, but he refuses to move a second time. Why? Because of the plants. Already he’s had to give up all his gardens once. He can’t bear to do it again. Since he could not take these new plants with him, he chooses to live here, alone, rather than uproot.

“I have no vision for the future,” he says. “Summer here is too hot and winter too cold.”

Across the sea of asphalt stands another block of apartments. A man comes barefoot out of building H-15 and sits cross-legged on his front deck. He begins shaving there, and calls out to us as we pass by.

Yukio Kubota is also from Kawauchi town. On March 15, 2011, four days after the earthquake, he and his wife evacuated to Niigata, his wife’s hometown on the west coast. She has stayed with relatives for the past year but he returned to Fukushima Prefecture to be closer to home.

Once last summer he returned home for a few days. The weeds were more than a meter high, he says. “The first day we cut weeds. The second day we removed all soil in the garden up to 5 cm deep. The radiation inside the house was 4.3 μSv per hour, but we didn’t have a Geiger counter so we were sleeping in this place.” They left when they learned how high the radiation still was.

A note on radiation dose: 1 Sievert is 1000 milliSieverts (mSv) is one million microSieverts (μSv). To compare, the peak level measured in this part of the Exclusion Zone (330 μSv/hr on 3/15/11) (1) was 76 times higher than the dose inside Yukio’s house; however his house level was still 12 times more than typical background radiation. The EPA recommends an annual dose limit of 1 mSv per year, which Yukio would reach inside his house in less than 10 days.

Here is a useful chart that illustrates doses.

Symptoms of Acute Radiation Sickness generally start above 350 mSv — 81,400 times the hourly dose at Yukio’s. This leads some Japanese to conclude there is nothing to worry about. However, just because you’re not keeling over today doesn’t mean there is no risk of future disease (as I discussed here).

Now, a year later, government workers have finally decontaminated his house and yard. The initial new reading was 1 to 2 μSv per hour. “I am waiting to see the radiation levels before I decide to move home,” he says.

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