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View from Fukushima

Three years on from the Tōhoku tsunami, Fukushima is still struggling to come to terms with the disaster, reports David Garcia

If you look at a recent satellite image of Onagawa, you are quickly drawn to a strange architectural feature on the otherwise barren landscape. The facade is clearly readable, the windows are easy to discern, and the outline of the three-storey building is precise and orthogonal. This is troubling. If we can see a building’s facade from space, something is wrong. And something did go terribly wrong, on 11 March 2011, when a 9.0 earthquake triggered a tsunami which hit the Tōhoku coast of Japan, from Fukushima to Miyagi prefectures, shifting half of Japan 2.4 metres eastwards and causing over 15,000 deaths.

In this location, given the topography of the Onagawa bay, the tsunami reached 40m in height by the time it hit the town. Unsurprisingly, the building in question was simply toppled by the impact, like a toy rotated on its axis; just lying on its side, otherwise almost intact. This was an exceptional case, since most of the town was razed to the ground, as if bulldozed. The amount of rubble along the north-east coast of Japan is such that three years on, land has been artificially reclaimed from the sea, needed for the still ongoing process of sorting the debris. Walking among this artificial landscape, you are surrounded by hills. One of mangled cars, another of dishwashers, a third of doors.

Last November I was privileged to visit many of the communities that survived the disaster. Their heart-breaking accounts are only matched by their resilience and steadfast optimism.

In Fukushima, you encounter another tragic outcome: radiation. The effects of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant explosion after the tsunami impact have a sombre effect on the region, a legacy which is nigh on impossible to rebuild on. In the words of the major of Iwaki, ‘We are blacklisted in Japan. No one will visit us, purchase our goods or even mention the region. So we are reinventing ourselves, as the epicentre of sustainable energy,’ referring to the project of establishing the world’s largest floating wind farm, off the Fukushima coast.


Visible here in Minamisōma, surfers sway atop waves just some 20km away from the Fukushima plant

In the vicinities of the nuclear plant, and as part of my investigation in mediating the invisible, I engaged in transforming radiation levels into sounds, propagated via speakers, onto the desolate landscape. Suited, protected and engaged in the radiation readings, an elderly man startled me, wanting to talk.

What he revealed was astonishing, but recognisable from my previous visits to Chernobyl. He came to visit his ‘house’ once a week, and leave a bottle of sake as an offering for the deceased. He insisted that we walk to his past residence, not far from the coast, a landscape overgrown and verdant, sectioned by paved streets, with only four houses left standing. A nuclear plant chimney stands out in the background. The single-storey dwelling was slightly twisted, and a facade was missing, revealing the house in section, almost intact, with tables, chairs, closets, books, TVs and a phone, and sofas … and the sake bottle. An image made no less surreal by me wearing red protective gear from head to toe, and the man, in his everyday clothes, stepping into his house through the open facade, as if entering a film screen. He insisted on showing me around, his smile revealing his pride that his house withstood the disaster. Never mentioning who in his family did or did not survive, he described the everyday rituals in what used to be his home.

During my sombre drive back, I stop at another incredible sight. At a short distance from the shore, five black figures seem to sway atop the waves of an irradiated sea, where fishermen dare not fish any more. They are young surfers, either in denial of the dangers and in rebel mode, or believing that things are not as bad as advertised, they called themselves ‘The surfers of Fukushima’.

Opening Image

Standing near the site of the Fukushima nuclear meltdown, clad in a protective hazard suit, David Garcia operates a device converting the dangerous levels of radiation into sound

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