On March 11th 2011, a large M 9.0 earthquake hit off the coast of North Eastern Japan. The subsequent tsunami lead to one of the largest nuclear disasters since the advent of nuclear power production. Fast forward 3 years to March 11th 2014, and I am in the final stages of uprooting my life in Vancouver, BC to to move to Japan to start my Masters’ degree in agricultural economics at Tokyo University of Agriculture. Besides the usual anxieties of starting over in a new city, let alone new country, was the fear that I had no idea what future health effects would result from this decision to live less than 300 km away from where the meltdown occurred. Here I was, reading reports of the environmental consequences of the radioactive waste along the coast of North America, an ocean away, and I was going to move CLOSER to where a nuclear plant was continuing to spew out contaminated waste water?
So imagine my surprise when I found myself, not two months after I had arrived in Japan, driving through the evacuated 20km radius surrounding Daichi Nuclear Power Plant. The ‘tour’ was the last part of an organized event in support of farmers in Fukushima whose lives had essentially stopped on March 11th. The event itself was to create “tambo art”. Tambo is the Japanese word for rice paddy, and much like many corn farmers etch art into their cornfields, so too, have the Japanese utilizing different varieties of rice to create images in their rice paddies. The farming family whose rice paddies we would be utilizing for this project had left their fields and paddies fallow since March 11th and this art was aimed as both a celebration for their return to agriculture, as well as a symbol of hope for the region that agriculture might once again thrive.
It’s hard to not have fun when participating in a group farming event and despite this being almost ground zero to one of the biggest disasters in recent years, this was no exception: laughter and shrieks of delight echoed across the valley from the various paddies as participants tossed rice seedlings to each other, and got splashed, lost boots or fell into the muddy water. For those unfamiliar to planting rice, it is done in rice paddies with about 8-12 inches of standing water. The mud below the water surface is raked which serves as a guideline for planting rice seedlings. There are two main tasks, planting the seedlings (which involves breaking off two or three seedlings from a clump and sticking it about two knuckled deep into the mud, three inches apart) or standing on the side banks tossing large-ish clumps of seedlings to those knee deep in the rice paddy. Those planting try to move as slowly and as deliberately as possible to avoid clouding the water which renders the raked guidelines useless. For tambo art, one more complication is added, which is the differentiating of different varieties (and thus colours) or seedlings which are planted between markers, sort of like a paint by numbers but on a larger scale.
Of course, the best part of farm related events is the food, and the spread at the BBQ lunch did not disappoint. A picnic blanket was placed in the center of an unused poly hoop house, and we all baked in the sun while gorging on plates and plates of BBQd veggies, heaping piles of rice balls, pickles, grilled fish and meat. And along with the flow of beer, came the flow of stories- first funny, then shocking and finally heartbreaking.
We heard of the pride of a child being ‘upgraded’ from being a rice seedling tosser to a bonafide planter, and that in the good ol’ days, no matter how tired you were at the end of a long day of planting, you always had enough energy to share a drink and a laugh with your neighbours. We heard that in the last twenty years, this sharing culture had gradually become more individualized with the advent of farming machinery, and that farm sizes were increasing as the number of farmers started to dwindle. We heard that after March 11th, this (already small) predominantly farming community lost farmer after farmer, as they all decided to leave the area to try to scrap together a new life elsewhere while they have a few 'working years*' left in them. The farmer regaling us with these tales told us that he’s the only full time farmer under 60 left in the area, and can’t bear to let the village die, which is why he stays despite not being able to farm for fear of producing food unsafe to consume. In the past three years, he’s put on about 30 lbs, all stress related. This farmer had heard the the anguished cries of people that were swept out to sea and couldn't find their way back to shore in the dark echoeing in the valley below his elevated farmstead. Everyday he deals with personal and physical loss, the weight of survivors guilt and sudden idleness after years of unending, backbreaking, purposeful and directed work. Staring at the very land that betrayed him, he's felt himself sinking into depression, and expressed gratitude over and over again for all of us coming and bringing life back into the fields.
*in Japan working years are usually classified as the years between 18-65, when one is considered employable by companies. After 65, you are either asked to retire and come back as a part time, less tenured employee if you still wish to continue working.
On day two, we took a tour around the 20km evacuated area around the Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. The area is actually blocked off to the public, so cars have to pass through checkpoints to enter. It was a little disconcerting to be waved through these checkpoints by guards in heavily protective clothing since we were in just our everyday garb, but the Geiger counter on the dashboard indicated that the radiation levels were well within safe levels. Driving around felt like touring the set of a movie you had already seen: large ships, piles of mangled cars and farm equipment stranded in the middle of rice paddies. Comments from our 'guide' (one of the residents who had helped organize the event) pointing out his own fields, his abandoned house, the water line marks on telephone poles so high above our heads we had to squint to see them, gave context to what we were seeing. You would think that seeing this type of massive physical destruction would bring home the tragedy of March 11th, and yet it was the personal stories that have haunted me in the months to follow whenever I see “Fukushima grown” on labels of vegetables at the supermarket. These communities have had to mourn the loss of countless friends and family members and yet on top of that they have had to deal with a loss in purpose, unable to find the means to 'get on' with their lives. I, too, have seen the damming VICE video about the lack of transparency about the situation in Fukushima, but it’s hard to know what to do when you meet the farmers whose greatest asset lays fallow due to our collective need for an unlimited supply of on demand energy.
I missed the two follow up events (in one they projected an image of a moving horse on top of the horse shape we planted, in the other they harvested the rice we planted), but I know they must have breathed further life into a community just starting to get back up on shaky feet. I received a packet of rice in the mail the other day- a token of thanks for my participation in the event. To me, they represent the seeds for new ideas and a renewed sense of solidarity in moving forward towards cultivating a more united world.
I'll explore the safety of the area in a future post, because I think when talking about millisieverts and radioactive Cesium, we forget about the human experience. And that, above all else, is what going to Fukushima taught me: to embrace the contradiction between heart and mind, and explore the deeper questions about what the consequences are of our decision. I hope that in the decisions that I, we, make as consumers, as activists, as global actors for change include listening to and empathizing with the humans whose lives get tossed around when I, we, come to conclusions about far away places we don't really understand.
this project was made possible due to the collaboration of the following organizations:
Project NOMADO which was founded post March 11th to :
「福島の被災農家を支えよう」: support the farmers in Fukushima
「福島を第二の水俣にするな」: not let Fukushima be the next Minamata
(Miinamata: a city in Kumamoto, Japan where hundreds were affected by mercury poisoning due to leakage from a chemical plant)
「相馬に復興の砦を築こう」: rebuild Soma (a city in Fukushima)
The efforts of Project NOMADO have resulted in a storefront, which features local products and a café designed to hold workshops to engage residents in dialogue to promote healing and dream up solutions for the future of the region. The structure of these two buildings was built by Youkei Design.
YOUKEI design is an NPO comprised of architects with the aim to redefining spaces as a means to cultivate global/local communities.
Minowa Rice Field : a rice farm in Chiba run by the awesome and amazing Tomo and Nagisa. They grow rice and soybeans organically, using ducks as a form of pest and weed management in their rice fields.
Emi Do: Exploring ideas in small scale agriculture: feasibility, viability, relevance and resilience.