Brief reflections on a week in Iwaki

Back in Tokyo after a busy and exhausting week in the southern part of Fukushima Prefecture. Not a ‘fun’ or ‘interesting’ week by any stretch of the imagination, but feel I learned an awful lot nonetheless.
First, though, a geography lesson. Let us not confuse Fukushima Prefecture and the Fukushima Dai’Ichi nuclear site. Fukushima Prefecture is home to some two million people and occupies an area half the size of Belgium. The area I visited was Iwaki, one of the southernmost districts of Fukushima Prefecture located on the coast. Iwaki is about 40 kilometres in length, and has significant coastal and inland areas. To the north of Iwaki is Futaba-Gun, where many of the contaminated and evacuated communities lie.
'Come on Iwaki!' in local dialect
‘Come on Iwaki!’ in local dialect

For the majority of the week I was based in Onahama within Iwaki. Onahama is the largest fishing port in Fukushima Prefecture and one of the key sites of the recovery work being done post-2011. Onahama itself is largely based around fisheries, and took a heavy hit from the earthquake and tsunami that wiped out much of the infrastructure and many of the boats. Since then, a lot of reconstruction has been done in Onahama and the other towns that are situated along the Iwaki coast. Many of the offices and buildings – like the town fisheries centre – are back open again, and indeed in many cases seem rather proud of the reconstruction that has been done. There are often photos of the tsunami devastation pinned up in shops, as if to not only remember what happened but also show how much progress has been made since.

Rebuilding the freezing facility at Onahama fishing port
Rebuilding the freezing facility at Onahama fishing port
However, rather more problematic is the effect the nuclear accident has had on the area’s fisheries – and it is this that I was mainly studying. Right now, much of the fisheries in Iwaki is stopped completely on account of the risk of fish being too contaminated to eat. However, since 2012 the fishers have been participating in shikensōgyō – trial fisheries – in order to monitor levels of radiation. The fishers go out in their boats, catch fish and land them as usual, but rather than the fish going to market they go to the fisheries research station in Onahama for measuring and assessment. The work proceeds quickly – the assessment process usually begins within 2-3 hours of the fish being landed – and results are distributed at weekly meetings between the researchers and fishers. When the fishers bring their catch to the station, they get given a print-out of the previous week’s results. The good news is that the radiation levels are declining, some fish are already back on sale, and many more are expected to follow in a year or two. Whether people will buy them or not is, of course, another question entirely.
Sorting the catch from the trial fisheries
Sorting the catch from the trial fisheries
What impressed me most from the interviews and ethnography I was doing was the level of trust that seems to exist between the fishers and the prefecture fisheries officers. The fishers get information from Fukushima Prefecture itself, from the national government research bodies, and from the nuclear plant operators TEPCO. However, it is the first of these, the most local researchers and officers, that seem to exact the must trust and confidence. I get the feeling this is because the local officers are out on the ground day after day, meeting the fishers face-to-face and getting their hands dirty washing buckets and helping the fishers carry buckets about. Plus, they were there doing research before it all kicked off in 2011. Loads of data to work through to try to put some more flesh on my hypothesis.
Somewhat more sobering was the last day I spent to the north in Hirono, just inside Futaba-Gun. Hirono was the first community to be resettled after the nuclear disaster, having voluntarily evacuated to return in 2012. I was only there for a day, but really got a sense of flatness and almost despondency. I hardly detected any of the fighting spirit that seemed to be infectious in Iwaki. The town centre was very quiet with many shuttered shops (although it was a Saturday), but had clearly been reconstructed. I tried to visit the hot springs near the town, but got there to discover they had all been taken over as dormitories for decontamination workers and were not accepting outside visitors. At the roadside I came over numerous posters erected for labourers to read on their way to work, encouraging them to fight for fair pay and hold the government and TEPCO to accountability. And everywhere were the little white estate cars you get in Japan that only companies can buy, all of them taking work-suited people back and forth from the plant.
Spa hotel in Hirono taken over by decontamination workers
Spa hotel in Hirono taken over by decontamination workers
Everyone I talked to while in Hirono talked about the nuclear accident, and there was a real sense that what was happening 20km up the road was completely pervading life here. Even on the train back, people coming down from further up the line (where decontamination is still not yet done) often had small suitcases, as if they had returned for the short visits they are allowed to make to prepare for resettlement later this year. I left actually quite angry about how the nuclear event had affected life here – the tsunami and earthquake everyone seemed to be slowly bouncing back from, but radiation made things very different.
Poster near hotels in Hirono in the middle of the countryside, reading 'It is the responsibility of the government and TEPCO to guarantee the quality of life of everyone working at the nuclear power plant' or words to that effect.
Poster near hotels in Hirono in the middle of the countryside, reading ‘It is the responsibility of the government and TEPCO to guarantee the quality of life of everyone working at the nuclear power plant’ or words to that effect.
Lots of data back with me – scores of interviews with fishers, prefectural officers and fisheries association representative – as well as four full days’ worth of field notes noting the informal conversations I had and what I saw. Just a short break now to process everything (backup files, transfer from one device to another) before it’s back north for Fukushima round 2 – this time further inland.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s