We start the trip at 9:40am and leave Tokyo headed in north-westward direction. We drive along the highway through Chiba Prefecture and towards Ibaraki Prefecture. After shortly stopping in Iwaki City, we continue to follow the Joban Expressway up North. This highway which spans around 300km in its entirety had been closed off in a 20km radius between Hirono and Tomioka after the Fukushima disaster and was only accessible with an official exemption certificate issued by the government authorities. However, it was reopened to the public on the 22nd of February 2014. Shortly after, the construction of the route Namie to Minamisoma was continued and finished on the 6th of December 2014. The last part, a 14.3 km long stretch between Namie and Jobantomioka was finally opened on the 1st of March 2015. Radiation exposure is displayed at 6 points on this route.
Driving along the highway, overhead plates show the current radiation exposure in micro Sievert per hour. Somewhere close to the town of Tomioka (Futaba district) the measurement increases to as high as 5 μSv/h (micro Sievert per hour). To put these numbers in perspective, whereby 10 μSv/h translates to immediate physical danger and an urgent requirement to relocate at once, 5 μSv/h presents a high risk of harm and requires you to relocate as soon as possible; even as low as a number as 2 μSv/h presents an elevated risk and the need to take safety precautions. At the moment of the highest outside radiation the Geiger counter does indeed show the value measured inside of the car as 2 μSv/h. Not only the urgent piercing beep of the counter makes this experience a stressful one, but also knowing that even inside the car, whose metal plates act as a shield from radiation exposure, the radiation is so strong as to pose an immediate threat to human health made me feel extremely uncomfortable. Never having been knowingly exposed to such an amount of radiation at once, for such an extended period of time, I feel like I can sense my body being irradiated. This is of course impossible, but serves as a personal proof of the way in which something so intangible and invisible, and at the same time so hostile to the human organism, could cause severe mental stress and a feeling of being reduced to ones bare and unprotected life. I remember my father’s concerns about this trip and cannot help wondering if, in this very moment, I am doing anything harmful to my potential future offspring.
The view along the highway is defined by fields whose surfaces have been lowered to a few decimetres. This reduction of surface level is due to the extensive excavation of irradiated soil, which in strenuous, labor-intensive work is dug up and stored in massive black bags. The latter are even more defining of the landscape than the strangely lowered squares of land. The black bags are almost everywhere. Rows and rows, mountains next to mountains of squarish bags bursting full with dirt, once source of life, they are now through the impact of human technology turned into toxic radioactive waste. I ask myself, from this moment onwards, what is this matter that they contain? Is it nature or is it something else?
The night is spent at a local Ryokan in Minamisoma-Shi, a city who has been severely affected by the impact of the Tsunami. Being located high enough on a hill the elderly owners’ house was just spared by the hungry flood. However, due to the radioactive contamination all around they had to discontinue their occupations as organic farmers. In an attempt to keep his most prosperous collecting spots a secret and maybe also in a desperate grip on normalcy, the husband, Mori-San, continues to collect the local Hatsutake mushroom. This is a mushroom variety, which is highly sought after, but as mushrooms tend to pull out the radioactive elements from the ground, it will remain inedible for the next decades, maybe centuries. Mori-San and his wife tell stories of how gravely the local community was affected by the disaster. When the Tsunami ate its way inland many citizens evacuated to a Shrine, located at the top of a hill. However, tragically enough, the elevation proofed to low and all of the refugees there fell victim to the merciless waves. Now, tales are being circulated of the ghosts of the deceased haunting the area. Strange instances of ghost-sightings are amassed and shared between residents. Deeply impacting and irreversibly altering everyone’s life, the disaster has entered the oral culture.
All images and content ©Theresa Deichert, 2016.