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Radiation fears & world heritage

September 23, 2014

Schools avoid Iwate Pref. world heritage site over radiation fears


HIRAIZUMI, Iwate -- Work to remove radiation from the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant disaster has not been permitted at the Hiraizumi world heritage site, one of the main tourist destinations for northeastern Japan, and fewer school field trips are being made here.

Hiraizumi is known for the golden Konjikido building in its temple Chuson-ji, and the fine garden at Motsuji Temple. The temples and other structural remains in the area trace back to the Oshufujiwara Clan, which was in power during Japan's Heian Era.

In June 2011, three months after the Great East Japan Earthquake, sites in the area were registered as world heritage monuments under the name "Hiraizumi." However, in December that year, the town of Hiraizumi was designated an area requiring radiation monitoring, due to having at least 0.23 microsieverts of radiation per hour.

At the former site of Kanjizaio Temple, one of the sites included in the world heritage designation, radiation levels were measured in June 2012 at 0.30 microsieverts per hour. This led the Hiraizumi Municipal Government to contact the Agency for Cultural Affairs, saying it wanted to remove the turf and top soil at the site to lower radiation levels, but the agency turned this idea down for the reason that a national cultural asset should not be tampered with in such a way.

In the end, the municipal government was unable to conduct decontamination work at the Hiraizumi sites, but due to rain and other natural factors, the radiation levels at the former site of Kanjizaio Temple were down to 0.16 microsieverts per hour in October 2013.

Come March this year, the municipal government finally finished its two-year decontamination plan that covered the town as a whole. Katsuyoshi Sugawara, head of the town's radiation-response department, says, "The radiation levels are within national limits. There is no need for tourists to worry."

In 2012, Hiraizumi had 2.64 million tourists, the most on record, due to a boost from its registration as a world heritage site. In 2013 there were 2.14 million visitors, still more than the around 2 million a year who visited pre-earthquake. However, for 2012 and 2013, each year there were only around 35,000 junior high and high school visitors, about 70 percent of the pre-disaster level. In particular, student visitors from Hokkaido, who had made up over 40 percent of visiting students pre-disaster, were down to around 40 percent of those levels in 2013.

"It pains us because we have a long friendship with Hiraizumi, but many parents are worried about the radiation levels, and we have to cater to them," says the vice principal of one Sapporo junior high school that canceled its visits.

The Hiraizumi Municipal Government, local tourism association and Iwate Prefectural Government have worked together to visit travel companies and junior high and high schools in Sapporo to promote Hiraizumi as safe, but they have been unable to erase people's concerns.

Jin Onodera, senior managing director of the "Hiraizumi Kanko Rest Center" souvenir shop at Chuson-ji says, "It is important that junior high and high schools students visit and see what is good about our temple, so they will continue to visit us long into the future."

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