Amidst Nuclear Fallout

Rev. Toku-un Tanaka

Rev. Toku-un Tanaka is the abbot of Dokei-ji temple in the Odaka Ward of Minami Soma City in Fukushima, some 17 kilometers from the nuclear power plants, as well as abbot of Chuzen-ji temple in the town of Futaba even closer to the plants.


The Splintering of a Buddhist Household

From the time of the tsunami disaster and nuclear incident of March 11, 2011, I became in a variety of ways both a victim and then a refugee, and since then I think I have come to truly understand how it feels to be a refugee. At present, I have four children ages eight, six, four, and one. On the very day of the tsunami before the explosions at the plants, we evacuated the area and went to live in Fukui Prefecture[1] near Kyoto. I have connections there because of my time training as a Soto Zen priest at our head temple Eihei-ji located in Fukui, so we could find a place to rent nearby.

Back in Fukushima, I have various duties to serve the community around my temple, and so, of course, I began to get requests from the lay people in the area for support shortly after the explosions at the reactors. So at the end of March, I decided that it would be best to return to Fukushima to meet people, listen to their concerns, share their worries over their health, and be part of the revival of the community with my temple as a center.

The work increased rapidly, and I found myself wanting to help people in locations all over the place. I felt with all my heart that this was my duty. In doing so, however, I couldn’t see my family at all. If I were able to take a 3-day break, I would make a plan to go home, but the work would soon intrude on the plan. We priests are taught to accept and take on what is asked of us, so I thought I did not have a reason to refuse. Basically, I thought any request I got I would try to fulfill. So quickly I began to carry out all these duties, and the time with my family began to disappear.

We used to live with my mother who helped out with the family. At first, she refused to evacuate with us, but then she moved south to Iwaki City, which is still within Fukushima prefecture. Without her or myself around, my wife was raising our four children by herself. There are times when nothing special is happening at home, but other times when there are and, of course, times when the children get sick. If one person in the household gets a cold, then it spreads easily to the others and creates a situation for my wife in which she really cannot bear being alone.

At one point, my oldest son did not want to go to school anymore. He said his real school is back in Fukushima. It took him about a year to get used to his new school. Everyone around him there was quite nice. Unlike the experience of many other children from Fukushima who had relocated to new areas, he never heard anyone tease him and tell him not come around because of being contaminated by radiation. It took some time for him to make friends. Eventually, he developed many new friends who started to come over to play at our house.

From July to September, Buddhist priests get busy for performing ancestral rites for both the summer Obon festival to the Autumn equinox. During this time, for the most part, I was not able to return home nor meet with my family. For two years my wife and children had gratefully taken refuge in Fukui with the single-minded intention to protect our children from the radiation. However, my wife broke down one day in tears telling me that before the radiation gets her, she’ll become sick from trying to endure this kind of broken up lifestyle. At this point, I too finally reached my limit.

So in March 2013, when the school semester ended, my wife and children moved to her parent’s house in Iwaki City in Fukushima. My temple is located in Minami Soma, which located to the north of the nuclear power plants, while Iwaki is located to the south of them. If there is no traffic, you used to be able to get from one to the other in an hour and a half. However, because of the incident at the reactors, you can’t use the usual through roads, so now it takes about three and a half hours using detours. The best way is to use Route 6, but to do so one needs to get permission from the authorities which can be difficult. However, this is not just a problem of convenience but also the radiation exposure in driving so near to the reactors. While passing through this area on my commute, my Geiger counter alarm will go off, and even inside the car, I can get exposed to a dose of 30 microsieverts/hour.

In this way, life continues to be quite complicated. For the time being, I am now with my family again. However, never for a moment have I thought that we are now safer from the radiation. I have even thought about getting a led apron to protect myself on my drives. It’s been really gut wrenching, especially having a one year old child. None of the children can go outside to play freely. The three older kids used to go around bare footed, and if some food fell on the ground, you could pick it back up, brush it off, and eat it without any worries. Now it’s of course not possible to live such a lifestyle anymore. Recently, I’ve been going and coming back every day but have been thinking of how to make things easier and change my lifestyle.

Splintered Communities, Towns, and Province

After completing my training as a Zen monk some 15 years ago, I had the goal of living a self-sufficient lifestyle and cultivating the land. I imagined using one harrow and no heavy machinery. I felt if one cannot understand the same way of working as people in the past, then one cannot understand the intensity of these old lifestyles and, therefore, not understand the value of having machinery. If one can understand the value of having machinery, then I think one can understand why we made the shift to using them. This is a process of experiencing unknown things and shifts by oneself through cultivating the land, planting each single seed together with one’s children, providing water, and pulling up weeds; then at the time of harvest, receiving together its incredible blessing and gaining a feeling of happiness. I had thought of educating my children in this way, but everything has totally changed now. This is so regrettable.

As Rev. Hidehito Okochi and the Inter Faith Forum for the Review of National Nuclear Policy has stated before, with nuclear energy, there is the cost of life or rather the loss of life, because there is no technique that will provide us a solution to nuclear waste. Although we knew this, such an awareness that, “This will happen in the future and so it would be better to abandon it now,” should have been transmitted earlier. I feel extremely frustrated that we did not motivate ourselves to sound the alarm on this totally unjust system. However, I think there is meaning in working to overcome this situation now, so I would like to consider what we can from here on.

In Fukushima, there has developed a bit of a dispute since the incident between the people of its different regions. Fukushima faces the Pacific Ocean, and the region is broken into three main blocks: the coastal area in the east, the middle part of the prefecture, and the far western part of Aizu along the Ou-u mountains. The coastal area is where the nuclear power plants are located, and the ocean breeze has a strong effect. When the explosions occurred at the reactors, it blew the radiation into the central and northern regions of the prefecture, where there are now high rates of fallout. Many of the laborers who worked in the power plants lived in the coastal areas, and it seems to me that the people in the central part of the prefecture had little awareness of the nuclear issue before the incident. However, like the people in the coastal areas, they are now facing the problems of the radiation. The government only drew lines around areas at a close distance of 20 and 30 kms from the reactors, which means that anyone outside these areas does not qualify for health protection or financial compensation. In this way, there are people and their small children from the central region cities of Fukushima and Koriyama who have tearfully evacuated their homes using their own expenses. I share their feeling. We would all like to protect the children from the radiation.

I think that the people in the central regions, like Koriyama and Fukushima, who are also living in dangerous areas should also receive compensation. The demarcation of evacuations zones should not be determined by the number of kilometers from the nuclear plant but rather the rate of radioactivity in a region. For example, houses where the rate is 0.3 microsieverts/hour and above should have the right to evacuate. The right not to evacuate should also naturally be acknowledged. In the cases of those who have already evacuated, there needs to be a provision to secure an equivalent lifestyle as before the incident, especially in terms of health security. It has now been two years since the incident, and people have not received such provisions. I think this needs to happen for those in real need and for everyone’s peace of mind.

My temple in the Odaka Ward of Minami Soma City is located within the 20 km restricted zone. There is another temple of my denomination located just up the road 22 kms from the reactors where I have been kindly allowed to stay during this time. This zone between 20 and 30 kms extends northwards through to the Kashima Ward of Minami Soma, which is located outside the 30 km line. We could have not foreseen our present lifestyle where many stores are closed and the ones that are open are overcrowded. The roads are also overcrowded, because a number of them have been closed to access. So the style of driving in the area has become rough, and the people have become exhausted. Still nothing has changed about the limits of compensation that have divided the community. Nothing has changed about how people are worried about the radiation and about how to safely raise their children. This boundary that has been imposed upon us contains humans who have been put inside it and pushed outside of it, which has resulted in an invisible wall being created between them. We have always had the sense of being fellow citizens of one town, yet this line has now divided us.

The reality now is that if one makes a normal application for compensation, especially in terms of emotional damages, people from within the 20 km radius can receive 100,000 yen/month. This is for one person, so a household of five adults can get up to 500,000 yen/month. The people in my community are about 80-90% farmers or part time famers, and their monthly income had been until now less than 500,000 yen/month. In this way, people can make more money than they did before through such compensation. A new problem is developing from this in which some people say it is foolish to work and we should instead take the compensation. This is causing problems for the people in the area, especially among families, because if a family member criticizes another for not working and trying to deal with their life more diligently, they get upset. If such a person had more opportunities, they might actually work harder, but these days there is very little opportunity around here. If we had really wanted to return to the lifestyle that we had before, we would have done so already. But we have been deprived of our farmland, and now what can we do with our fields and paddies? What can you do if the food you grow you cannot eat? People cannot see any hope so they have become depressed. With little to do every day, they begin to drink or just waste their time entertaining themselves.

In this way, children are seeing the dark side of their parents and grandparents. I think they wonder how will the adults overcome things? The children of Fukushima as well as the children from all over our country are looking to see how the adults will cope with this situation. Children are very sensitive, and they hold fast within themselves a dislike for war and an incredible fear of explosions. I myself cannot forget when I was small the fear of seeing an explosion on TV or the fear of reading about bombing and war. When I was growing up in the 1970s and 80s, there was the specter of imminent nuclear war. We grew up with the fear in the back of our minds that with one explosion our future would be thrown into chaos. So the real issue has become how we can come together to achieve the revival of our town, to protect our children, and to overcome our mutual differences.

Towards Revival: The “Politics” of Open Space and Natural Living

I feel that the way of thinking of each person and how they overcome problems is different. When I give a talk in front of 120 people, all 120 will have a different way of thinking. I think this is actually quite interesting. From a flower, every single petal is different, and since we are different, we can all compliment each other. If every flower and petal were the same, it would not be interesting at all. In this way, I think you first must acknowledge and accept such differences, without criticism or blame. We should not blame those people who are involved in nuclear power. Nuclear power engineers and promoters of the industry are after all just human beings who also have children. If you accuse them of anything, they’ll just be dismissive. This attitude holds true for everyone, myself included. Even if you are aware of your own faults and then someone clearly points them out, it’s still not so easy to acknowledge and actually solve—and this is of course true for the nuclear issue. If you trust this process and then experience a change from within, I think we can figure out a way to deal with the situation.  

What I want to focus on is creating a joyful space, like a festival (matsuri). This term “festival” harkens back to the past. When talking about politics, Japanese would use the terms osameru, which means “to rule” or “govern”, and matsuri-goto, which is another term for politics (seiji) or government. Now, these two terms matsuri and seiji have become divorced from one another, but originally politics (seiji) and matsuri-goto were synonymous. When planting season begins, there is gratitude for the earth and for the spirits as well as gratitude for the coming harvest. The rain falls and the sun shines. These are all the carrying out of the matsuri-goto—these “political affairs” connect together all humans in a community, where there is never neglect to help one another. Therefore, I want to create matsuri that place importance on the smiling faces of everyone, especially the children, and to express gratitude for the earth and life. If many people or even one person can be brought into such a space, they might understand the feeling of the atmosphere and gain a sense of gratitude saying, “Yes, this is really important.” I think if we can create such a space, then we can create change from within.

Where I am from in Fukushima the interpersonal ties in the farming community are especially deep. Everyone knows that one person cannot live without the support of others. In this way of thinking, it would have been nice if we all could have evacuated together, because we felt that one person cannot evacuate alone. In order to protect the children, the mothers evacuated with them, but it’s been really difficult for them to be in new areas that they are not familiar with. So little by little, we have been building a network of refugees among themselves. Our people have now been away from the places where they used to live for more than two years and still have not really been able to settle down. They still have longing for their hometown. Meanwhile, the people who have stayed behind have also been having a really difficult time. The numbers of people in the area are gradually decreasing. By this month, March, the number of people will decrease again as a new employment cycle begins around the country. Work is really hard to get, and the labor supply is really lacking. There might be new people who return, like for example my own family, but I doubt anyone will return to their original place of dwelling. One thing I have heard is that doctors in the area are also gradually leaving, because as medical professionals they really understand what the situation is here.  

So my feeling is that the disaster of 3/11 continues on. Amidst it all, we must ask how the people can find any more strength within them—both the people of Fukushima and the people of Japan. Over these two years, we have received all kinds of support from people. They have listened to us and become intimate with us. I am sincerely thankful for all this support in helping over get through this experience, and I am filled with gratitude.

However, this is a long term battle. My family and I for the time being have returned to Fukushima. However, as the rate of leukemia around Chernobyl suddenly rose five years after the incident, the evacuation zone may yet again widen and it is quite possible that we will have to evacuate again. Simply, at this time, I am with my family on a daily basis, and after two years of being apart I want to reconfirm my affection for them. I think it’s good that my children can experience living with their father again. In this way, I have become determined to live my life moment by moment. It is still not clear how to concretely do what is best, but I think this is what is best for now. To say that we are living in Fukushima, I think means that we are valuing living moment by moment and day and day amidst this extraordinary situation.

If it is possible to stay and continue to rebuild our community and our local networks, I think the temple will play a central role. In Japan Buddhist temples number around 70,000. This is actually more than the number of convenience stores. There are all different kinds of people who depend on a Buddhist temple, a Shinto shrine, or a Christian church. In this way, religious professionals need to overcome barriers between them, and religion in general should never speak about differences. We religious professionals should encourage each other on this matter. I and other young religious professionals are doing our best now, and we seek for your assistance. We invite you to come visit us in Fukushima if you can. For women, 3-4 days should be no problem, and for men, I think up to an entire week is fine. Afterwards, I think it’s best to take a rest for your body to recover a bit. I truly hope you will continue to support us, and I thank you all so much.

This chapter was transcribed, translated, and edited by Jonathan Watts and Rev. Jin Sakai from a talk given by Rev. Tanaka on March 3, 2013 at Kenju-in Temple, under the abbotship of Rev. Hidehito Okochi of the Inter Faith Forum for the Review of National Nuclear Policy and the Japan Network of Engaged Buddhists.

[1] Editor’s Note: It is ironic that Rev. Tanaka evacuated from Fukushima to Fukui, which hosts the largest cluster of nuclear reactors (15) in the world called the “Nuclear Ginza”.

Seeds of Peace Vol.29 No. 3 (September-December 2013)


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