Fukushima struggles on 10 years after devastating earthquake and tsunami

The Tokyo Olympics have been without many things — spectators, cheering, singing — and Fukushima may feel the sense of loss more than most.

When Tokyo bid for the Olympics in 2013, the healing of Fukushima and the country’s Tohoku region was part of the pitch. A decade ago, northeastern Japan was rocked by the strongest earthquake in its recorded history. It triggered a tsunami that killed nearly 20,000 people and left more than 2,500 missing.

When the 15-metre tsunami flooded the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, there were explosions and meltdowns. A contaminated cloud blew north and 150,000 people moved out of the way. 

Most haven’t come back.

Japanese Olympic officials had wanted to use the Games to show confidence in the region’s growth. The fresh flowers given to athletes at the medal ceremonies are from three prefectures affected by the disaster. Fukushima grew some of the food served in the athletes’ village. The torch relay began there. The cauldron was lit with clean energy from the region.

It was a neat narrative constructed around a messier reality.

Nobuyoshi Ito has been measuring the radioactive properties in the food and soil in Iitate village for nearly a decade. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

“There has been no recovery. Saying it’s under control is a lie,” Nobuyoshi Ito said through an interpreter. Ito is a former computer engineer who retired to the village of Iitate, in Fukushima, a year before the disaster.

“Iitate had 6,500 people before the accident, but only 1,400 have returned. Where did the others go? It’s only when those people have returned that you can say for the first time that things have recovered.”

This sort of anger can feel odd coming from a man sitting in Iitate, given Ito never left. When the earthquake hit there wasn’t much damage in Iitate, and it was outside the zone first thought to be at risk from the cloud of radioactive materials. So he stayed.

Then, a few weeks later, the government reevaluated. It declared Iitate was contaminated after all.

Testing vegetables and soil

Ito, who became an apprentice farmer after his career, started collecting soil samples from throughout the village, and growing potatoes in them — not to eat, but to test. He has been measuring the radioactive properties in the food and soil for nearly a decade, trying to determine what is and isn’t safe to eat, and where it is and isn’t safe to go.

He carries a handheld radiation dosimeter with him, constantly evaluating the atmospheric contamination. And despite the evacuation orders being rescinded in Fukushima, Ito says people — especially children — shouldn’t return to his village.

“It will take 300 years to restore the village to its original state, and it will continue to emit radiation for 300 years,” he said. “The question is, can we bring our children, our newborn children, to such a village?”

But not everyone feels that way.

Masaru Mizoguchi, a professor of agricultural and life sciences at the University of Tokyo, says produce grown in Fukushima prefecture is safe if done properly. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Masaru Mizoguchi, a professor of agricultural and life sciences at the University of Tokyo, says he and others have learned to grow produce safely by consistently testing the soil and vegetables.

“I’m always surprised that all people don’t believe that this kind of fruit or vegetables aren’t safe,” he said. “I am a scientist so I understand what occurs in the fields.”

Dealing with the soil has been a priority for the Japanese government. When you drive through the region, you see fields of black bags, emerging like cruel crops on the landscape. They contain the contaminated vegetation and topsoil scraped away from areas near homes, public buildings and schools over the course of years.

Black bags containing radioactive soil can be found in many parts of Fukushima prefecture in northeastern Japan. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

There are millions of cubic metres of it. Unnervingly, some appear next to rice paddies. Japan’s government has said that, by 2045, the soil will move to a permanent site outside of Fukushima prefecture. But so far, there’s no word on where the toxic waste will go.

Ito continues to have his doubts about just how much the region has recovered.

“It’s all lies and deceit, isn’t it?” he said.

And if the Olympics were intended to offer the needed boost to reconstruction and confidence for all, it was a chance denied.

The shiny, freshly painted barriers built to guide the throngs of spectators outside the Fukushima Azuma Baseball Stadium never got their Olympic moment. The people never came.

Those barriers were pulled down last week — the experience over, even before the Olympic cauldron goes out.

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