The Veil of Radiance

The district of Fukushima was hit by a triple disaster. Although one might assume that the damages should be fixed after more than five years, radioactive contamination still forces tens of thousands of people to remain in small temporary shelters. However, hope lives on.

IMG_2657It seems like Tomoyo Watanabe is lucky. All her possessions are still where they belong. Her house, it is still there. Her former pride, the garden, may be overgrown a bit, but it’s still her garden. The machines she used for cultivating her land: a little bit rusty from the rain, but still in good shape.

Yet, nothing is as it appears to be in this part of Japan these days. Watanabe, a 69 year old lady with an imperturbable smile on her face, is a resident of Minamisoma, a city in the prefecture of Fukushima – a former resident, to put it more precisely. Her home town is located just 30 kilometers away from the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant. Both her home town and her residence were hit by a tsunami. A major earthquake (measuring 9 on the Richter scale) triggered a wave of 30 meters in height. Later on, after the collapse of three reactors of the power plant, the sour rain drew a veil of radiation over the region – and turned wide areas of it into forsaken land. The visible catastrophe was followed by an invisible one.

“My house stands right upon a hill,” Watanabe says. “From there I saw how the waves smashed other houses and cars like toys,” tells the lady who lives outside of the contaminated area, in a temporary housing project which is supported by Caritas Germany. Many of the inhabitants of her town were not so lucky. Nearly 3000 died on March 11th in 2011, after the enormous power, generated in the trial of strength of the North American Plate and the Pacific Plate, had been released.  Despite the privilege of still having a house, Watanabe asks herself: “Why should I go back? What could I do there, all alone?”

But, in spite of still high radioactivity, there are people who are willing to go back one day – mostly the elderly who had lived in the area for all their lives. But their children and grandsons are long gone and have already started a new life in other parts of the country, many of them in big cities like Tokyo or Hiroshima. The demographic change in Fukushima has accelerated by decades. So it’s basically the older generation that lives in the small compounds, where everyone has his or her own tiny space, not bigger than 20 square meters. Tens of thousands are still living in temporary shelters like this, soulless settlements, made out of wood and aluminum, which were meant to be just a provisional solution.

Watanabe doesn’t want to let herself go. Her deep laughter lines reflect her mentality. She got bouncebackability and is always trying to help others first. “Many people here can’t focus on the bright side of life anymore,” she says. With the help of the Japanese Organization AAR, a major partner of Caritas Germany in the country, she plans activities which are designed to bring fun and distraction into the lives of the retirees.

IMG_3093“This is still one of the biggest challenges,” tells Shinichiro Ohara, Programme Officer of AAR Japan. “Many had to experience dramatic things, lost relatives or friends, the fishermen their boats and the farmers their land. It’s really hard for them to get over it,” he says. “Many just shut themselves away and didn’t involve in social life,” Ohara says. Which already led to fatal situations. There where cases when old people died in their small apartments and nobody noticed it for days,” he says. “We try to weave the social net tighter. We want to help the people to take care of each other.”

And it’s the simple things that matter here. Like massage sessions, which are offered by volunteers of AAR. They are ice breakers for the traditionally introverted Japanese people. After the treatments they often sit together with other inhabitants of the shelter villages and the volunteers, drinking green tea, chatting and laughing together. Some also use the time to speak about more serious topics – their traumata and fears of the future.

“It’s important to have this offers,” says Watanabe. What makes her really happy is the fact that volunteers are coming from all over the country. “It shows that we are not forgotten and helps to bring the members of the community together again.” But she is also playing her part to improve the situation: by visiting the oldest of the communities in their small apartments. To check if everything is fine and give consolation and hope.

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At first, it was very difficult to motivate the men to participate in group activities, tells Ohara. That’s the reason why he started an “urban gardening”-project in several settlements. “It took a little while, but now they really appreciate it. It’s fully self-sustaining.” Everything he needed to take care of was the provision of wooden tubs, seeds and fresh soil from other parts of the country. “Now they feel responsible again – even though it’s of course not comparable to their life before the catastrophes.”

Nobody can tell if there will ever be a normal life in the region again. The government recently started to withdraw the evacuation order step by step. But just a minority of the people is willing to go back to their homes. Tomoyo Watanabe is not going to resign because of the situation: “That has never been the right option,” she says.