Last October I decided to document some of the facets of a year of life in my adopted home of Fukushima. Three months ago that life as it was ended, replaced by something I am only beginning to come to grips with.
My mother in law was there waiting for us last night, hazards blinking, fuel-efficient car parked neatly along the curb of the mostly empty street. Fukushima City seemed unusually dark and desolate for 8:30 on a Monday night. As our bus lurched to a stop I wondered if maybe it had always looked this way.
There were nine people on our bus, four of them me and my family. Three had gotten off at Koriyama. The Tokyo-Fukushima Highway Line, I was sure, had never been this empty. The recorded messages – We are now arriving in Fukushima, Thank you for riding with us, Please make sure you don’t leave anything behind – were the same as always, which somehow made them sound odd.
In the cargo hold there were three bags, two of them ours. I stepped up, my deadweight son asleep in one arm, my backpack and his Thomas the Tank Engine bag hanging from my other. Can I see your claim tickets please? asked the bus driver, polite and breezy and blinded by protocol.
For the first night or two (at least) we would be staying at my wife’s parents’ place in Arai where, ten miles from our apartment, the detected radiation levels were lower. On the way my wife asked how things were on the farm – Has it been cold, Are you busy with the peaches, Is the water okay to drink? Have you been keeping all the windows closed? My mother in law, I believe, wouldn’t have brought any of it up on her own. At the house my wife told my older son to jump over the dandelions and tufts of weeds growing out of the dirt at the edge of the carport. She then showed him how to step lightly and quickly across the spotty lawn to the cement porch, since in the dirt and on the foliage is where the "bad gas" collects. ‘I want to ride my scooter,’ my son said. ‘Tomorrow, not tonight, because it’s dark out now so we should go inside, right Daddy?’ After twenty-five hours of traveling I wanted to tell my son, so good the whole trip from New Jersey through Houston and on to the other side of the world, that he could go ahead and do every god damn thing his little heart desired. ‘We shouldn’t play outside,’ my wife told him. ‘It’s dangerous.’ Inside and shoes off, she led him directly to the bathroom for a shower. His and all our contaminated clothes would be tied up in a plastic bag until laundry time.
I was up at five this morning, pretty good for my first jet-lagged day back. My mother in law was already out in the orchard, putting little paper bags on the peaches just as she has done for the past forty-two years. Her vegetable garden is already heavy with leafy greens. In the dirt and foliage is where the bad gas collects. Overhead the sky was a clear icy blue; the only visible clouds were the ones hanging onto the mountain peaks a couple miles to the west. Flowers, mainly perennials, were blooming all along the driveway and outside the many sliding glass doors on the front of the house. Next door the neighbor was again growing his chrysanthemums; the flowers are used as garnish for convenience store bento lunches. The nearby cement factory, an eyesore despite being painted green, seemed in the process of being subsumed by the forested hillside.
My mother in law isn’t the only one persisting out in the fields of Fukushima. It is June, and the rice fields are once again verdant and thick. The apples and Japanese pears are beginning, if ever so slightly, to pull down on their branches. The cherries are ready to be picked. And this year, as with every year, those working the land are of the older generation. For them the seasons bring labor and rest in turns, and now is no different. But one question has, perhaps, entered their heads: Who will buy our harvest? The speculative answer echoes with ambitious pride and denial. This is home, this is life, and home and life exist here. Belong here. There is no changing this now. We will keep doing what we are doing.
Their weathered skin and hardy souls are not immune to the unseen dangers in the air, but in an ironic twist time is now on their side. The young ones bear the brunt of the unhealthy future. Their greatest blessing and curse is that they are largely unaware. They go to school, where the topsoil has been removed to make their environment less hazardous, in practicality or in mind. They can play outside, but only for a little while. They too go straight home and take off their clothes and put everything in plastic bags and get right in the shower.
Up the street a three year old girl stomps through the puddles in the dirt outside the house her parents began building before the quake...a brand new home, bright with new wood and dreams...a house where the future is now centered...a house that will only depreciate over time. There has to be a balance between keeping your daughter safe and letting her be a kid. Just nobody knows where it lies. Her house sits on land that was once part of one of several sprawling farms. Over the last decade this area has been taken over by developers; only a few rectangular plots of rice remain, swaths of green among the forest of homes and apartment buildings, a river of shops flowing down the middle. One family still lives in their old farm house, now so out of place among the progress covering the land that was once theirs. Bit by bit they sold it off. Now they are the only ones with a feasible means of quickly up and leaving.
Japan’s miraculous resurrection after World War II was due largely to the sacrificial diligence of the workforce – the shakaijin. These are the people now at the twisted mercy of the economy their predecessors built. Those with jobs are lucky to still have them, though this means they must stay put. Those left without their livelihood are free to go, but to where? And to what? Last year I worked with several men whose companies were moving them overseas, to work five year stints in Ho Chi Min and Bangkok and Singapore. At the time none of them wanted to go; some had children in school, and they had to decide whether to leave them behind with their mothers or uproot the entire family's existence and replace it with who knew what. If I had to guess, I’d say they’ve all moved their wives and children overseas by now. Suddenly, they are the fortunate ones.