The grocer smiled at me then glanced down at his tray of peaches. They were succulent, flawless, tinged with scarlet, the size of cricket balls.
‘Would you like one?’ he asked. ‘They could be radioactive. I’m not sure. I certainly wouldn’t feed them to my grandson, but you’re an adult so the radiation can’t hurt you as much.’ I politely declined, muttering something about an allergy to stone fruit. I then scuttled away.
You’ve got to admire the honesty of the people of Fukushima. While their political leadership dithers and disintegrates and the operators of the nuclear plant conceal and confound, the residents of this contaminated prefecture are either getting on with their lives or getting out of Dodge.
It was during my fifth visit to Fukushima that I realised most were adapting to life after the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. The wonderfully named hamburger chain Surprised Donkey does a roaring lunchtime trade in Fukushima City, but as I walked in it wasn’t the hum of diners or the sizzle of burgers that caught my ear. It was that familiar clicking, that unremitting reminder of how close this community of 300,000 is to the twisted, oozing carcass of the nuclear plant. Then I started to spot the squeaking Geiger counters. Two men in the summer salaryman’s uniform of long pants and short-sleeve collared shirts were waiting for a table in front of me. Dangling from straps around their wrists were Geiger counters. A young woman paying her bill at the counter had one stuffed into the back pocket of her denim shorts. These are the new fad gadgets of post-meltdown Japan. In Tokyo there’s a four-week wait for Geiger counters. The towering electronics shops in geeky Akihabara district ran out months ago. In factories throughout China, Russia and Japan technicians are working around the clock to meet the demand.
For Michiko Saito, the Geiger counter she wields is a frightening symbol of the nuclear industry’s arrogance towards nature and the Japanese government’s unhealthy obsession with nuclear power. Every day principal Saito takes her radiation reader out into the playground of the Sakura Nursery School in Fukushima City to check contamination levels. Weeks ago she made the decision to remove the topsoil when it was found that the playground was one of the twenty-six most contaminated sites in all of Fukushima Prefecture. I watched as she waved the Geiger counter around the permanent play equipment. The synthetic turf beneath the monkey bars hadn’t been removed, and the needle of the device swung off the scale.
‘We’ve had five kids taken out of school by their parents,’ principal Saito said. ‘And other mothers who are expecting babies may also leave soon with their children. But we are working hard to ease the anxiety of parents.’
But the anxiety will last as long as the tasteless, unseen radiation lingers. Just 60 kilometres from the nuclear plant, the Sakura Nursery School has banned the children from playing outside. Their only exposure to the great outdoors is brief. Covered in long sleeves and swimming caps they’re given five minutes to splash about in the school’s small pool. The water is changed every day. Their five minutes up, the children are whisked back inside. It’s like a hit and run commando raid. Not surprisingly, the parents and teachers here feel forgotten, isolated and contaminated.
‘Children and babies are said to be vulnerable to radiation, but the authorities have moved too slowly to help schools,’ principal Saito told me. ‘There are so many kids living in so-called radiation hot-spots but not enough is being done to look after them.’ She began to cry.
Whole communities were also left to fend for themselves. The people of Namie, just a few kilometres from the plant, were led north by town officials who believed the winds would be blowing south, sweeping any radioactive fall-out in the opposite direction. For the next few days they holed up in the Tsushima district, where an investigation by the New York Times found the children played outside and the parents prepared rice using water from a mountain stream. But the winds weren’t blowing south. They were blowing straight towards Tsushima. This was known in Tokyo, but government bureaucrats said nothing.
It’s not just the air or the topsoil people fear. Milk, spinach, mushrooms and rice have been found to contain high levels of radioactive iodine and/or caesium. There are contaminated cattle in Fukushima, as well as toxic tea in Shizuoka, which is more than 300 kilometres south-west of the shattered plant. The 35 million people of Greater Tokyo are much closer to the frothing reactors of Fukushima than the tea fields of Shizuoka are.
My wife asked me about the milk we buy, concerned we were poisoning our three daughters, the youngest of whom is just twelve months old. So I took a photo of the milk carton and emailed it to one of the ABC’s Japanese staff. She wrote back:
Hmmm, many people are writing on the internet that the name of the processing centre has disappeared from the package. Suspicious. It doesn’t seem like dairy companies are required to have it on the package. If you’re worried I recommend you buy milk from Hokkaido.
Then the operators of Fukushima finally revealed just how bad things were inside the rotting corpse of the nuclear plant. They uttered the dreaded ‘M’ word—meltdown. I wondered if I should pack up my family and take them back to Australia. Thousands of foreigners living in Japan fled after 11 March and never came back. The tension between the stayers and the fly-jin (a new take on the Japanese word gaijin, meaning foreigner) started to simmer. One group of sneering expats vowed to get shirts made up declaring, ‘We Stayed.’ Two days later, spooked by the ‘M’ word, they all packed up their kids and jetted out. Business class, of course—to Singapore, to Sydney, to London.
Within days of the March meltdown the internet began pulsating with apocalyptic rumours. Don’t go out in the wet, you’ll contract cancer from the nuclear rain. Don’t let your kids play in the park, the radiation settles in the dirt. Don’t drink the tap water, it’s contaminated (which turned out to be true according to a couple of Tokyo samples). I started to think I wasn’t doing enough to protect my family. So I hired a water dispenser and began hoarding large plastic containers of water. We now only buy milk with little maps of far-off Hokkaido on them. At the park the kids are only allowed to play on the swings. The sandpit is off-limits.
But back to those succulent peaches. If you think I escaped a taste of this forbidden Fukushima fruit, you are mistaken. After lunch with the Geiger-counter set at Surprised Donkey we went to interview Akiko Yoshida. Just weeks after the Fukushima disaster she’d given birth to her second child, a baby boy she called Keigo. Living in a community close to the nuclear plant, she’d moved away to live with her parents in the suburbs of Fukushima City. We’d come to talk to her about her fears for her young children, and her anger at the lack of information and support coming from the government. Before we’d set up the cameras Akiko’s mother appeared from the kitchen. Smiling in welcome she clutched a large dish. Glistening from the dish were large slices of juicy peach.
‘We are proud of our beautiful peaches here in Fukushima,’ she declared. ‘These are for you. Please eat!’© Mark Willacy