I am following up an invitation from farmers in the small Japanese village of Iitate to see how it has pulled through after the March 11 earthquake. Travelling through the narrow winding road into the village, it looks idyllic and certainly lives up to its reputation as one of the most beautiful villages in the country. The early summer sun pours gently on the lush hillsides and there are no visible signs of any damage — the town did not suffer badly in the quake, except for some small cracks in pavements and a crumbled down earth oven, and is too far inland to have been affected by the tsunami.
But there is an invisible radiation that is destroying this tiny village tucked away in the heart of Fukushima prefecture.
Within days after the earthquake struck, the Japanese authorities drew a 20-kilometre exclusion arc around the stricken power plant in Fukushima. Because it sits outside of this arc, some people took refuge in Iitate. While this may have seemed a good idea at the time, there was little consideration for how radioactive dust might travel, especially in the context of heavy winds coming in from the Japanese coast.
In late March, the area was deemed uninhabitable when a group of independent radiation experts visited the prefecture to survey the areas outside of the arc. One of the researchers who discovered Iitate’s contamination was Tetsuji Imanaka from the Research Reactor Institute at Kyoto University. He and others drove around the village and created a contamination map, something the Japanese government should have done much earlier, instead of relying on the number of fixed monitoring posts.
"Monitoring the radiation at the fixed location is useful to detect the occurrence of accidents and bomb testings but, after the accident [at]Fukushima, they should have gone around and made a detailed contamination map as soon as possible," said Imanaka when I spoke to him in his office in Kyoto. "Obviously, the government had been ill prepared for a major nuclear disaster like this one."
His findings in Iitate are alarming. "Some areas in the village showed the amount of radiation readings as high as [they were in areas that were]declared a no-man’s land [after]Chernobyl," he tells me. And Imanaka should know — he has been a frequent visitor to the Ukrainian town for over 25 years, studying the long-term effects of the incident. Imanaka and others found parts of Iitate contaminated with radiation levels more than 30 micro sievert/hour, almost eight times above the official "tolerable" level of 3.8 micro sievert/hour. It is believed the strong south-easterly winds brought in these deadly substances.
It took the Government a few more weeks before deciding to ask more than 6000 villagers to evacuate Iitate. Although they were aware of the findings of Imanaka and others, the villagers waited for the official confirmation, for they knew they would not receive any financial compensation without the official words.
Because of this, the government was reluctant, too: if they officially sanctioned the evacuation, they would have to foot the bill. Presumably that’s why they chose to observe the higher "acceptable level" of radiation exposure, based on the International Commission on Radiological Protection recommendation, even though there are other radiation expert bodies, such as European Committee on Radiation Risk (ECRR), calling for a lower limit. If the Government accepted the much lower limit of 0.01 micro sievert/hour, as recommended by the ECRR, millions of people from most of eastern Japan would need to be relocated.
Imanaka believes the Japanese Government’s response to this disaster was "worse than that by the former Soviet government". "[All the government did was to] shift the goalpost and raise the tolerable level from more internationally acceptable 0.19 micro sievert/hour, to 3.8 micro sievert/hour, which is normally applicable to the workers in the controlled areas on the power plants and other nuclear sites," he says.
The Chinese character representing ‘fuku’ in the name Fukushima means luck — and luck has certainly played its part in the history of Iitate.
The village was dying a slow death in the late 1980s. In the country where the value of land is judged by the amount of rice it can produce, Iitate had long been regarded as almost worthless because its cool summers hamper the crop’s growth. One particularly cold summer 30 years ago almost wiped out the entire harvest and the village was on the verge of extinction. It seemed, like many other rural areas in Japan at the time, on the way out. Against all the odds, however, Iitate reinvented itself through a fusion of traditional values and imported ideas such as ‘slow food’ and permaculture.
Instead of growing crops not suited to the local climate, the villagers tried out more favourable industries, such as dairy and beef cattle. The village, with over 3000 beef cattle, established the Iitate beef brand — reputed to be as good as, if not better than, the famed Matsuzaka beef. It became a preferred destination for ‘back-to-the-land’ enthusiasts and, unlike many other rural communities in Japan, Iitate came back from the brink and enjoyed a steady increase of population.
Koji Itonaga, a university professor and one of the leading proponents of permaculture in the country, had been involved in the development of Iitate for more than a decade. After the earthquake, he lobbied the government to swiftly relocate Iitate’s population.
When we meet in Iitate, Itonaga takes out his Geiger counter and shows me the level of radioactive contamination. Set at his waist, Itonaga’s counter reads three-to-five micro sievert/hour and, when held closer to the ground, it jumps to 10. When held at the bottom of the rainwater downpipe, the counter increases to 15. While these levels are incredibly high, some areas in the village have reported catastrophically high levels of 75 micro sievert/hour.
Itonaga is in Iitate to suggest that the village chief, Norio Kanno, consider a more organised long-term relocation of the local population and has also brought with him a plan to start afresh somewhere else. In his assessment, villagers will not be able to return any time soon — and certainly a great deal longer than the government has led them to believe.
Later in the afternoon, we meet the village chief, Norio Kanno, who tells us that almost two-thirds of the villagers have already gone: they are the lucky ones. Kanno is remarkably calm and looks resolute, rather than exhausted and exasperated. He gives short shrift to the long-term relocation ideas presented by Itonaga. Kanno believes optimistically that he and the villagers will be able to return soon to Iitate.
The village office finally closed its doors on 24 June, and the relocation of the population was complete. In his farewell speech, although calm, Kanno could not contain his resentment and helplessness. He stressed that the relocation was only temporary, and said he hoped the villagers could return within two years. The people of Iitate have fought against the odds successfully before, but they’ll need a lot more than luck this time.
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