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Watanabe's stories of Fukushima

March 9, 2015

FOUR YEARS AFTER: Raw voices from Fukushima's aftermath heard in Tokyo



Essayist Ichie Watanabe has heard dozens of life stories from people impacted by the Great East Japan Earthquake and nuclear accident that followed, but she has done more than simply writing them down.

Instead she has brought the narrators themselves to Tokyo, creating a forum where their raw voices can reach across the growing void between life in the disaster-stricken areas and how it is seen by outsiders.

“For many people here in the city, the disaster is beginning to seem like something that happened long ago and far away,” says Watanabe, 70. “But for those in Fukushima and other stricken areas, it’s still going on every day, even as people pay less attention."

She hosted the first “Fukushima no koe wo kiko!” (I'll hear Fukushima's voice) Tokyo talk session in March 2012. This month marked the 14th gathering.

Among those she has introduced in the past sessions is Shigeki Ota, a Tokyo native who moved to the Hippo district in Marumori, Miyagi Prefecture, in 1995 to run a farm with his family.

“The event gives us a chance to speak directly and give our view of what is happening, which is not always the same as what they learn from the news,” Ota says.

Watanabe, who at times works with her husband, the writer Makoto Shiina, first went to Fukushima in July 2011 as a volunteer, working with survivors mainly around the Minami-Soma area.

Because of her age, she says, elderly victims--especially women who found themselves living alone in temporary shelters--opened up more easily to her, and their stories resonated with experiences in her own life.

Born in Manchuria in 1945, Watanabe and her mother were repatriated at war's end to Japan, where the pair found it difficult to settle down in any one place. After she decided to become a writer, Watanabe spent nearly 20 years traveling to Tibet, depicting the lives of Tibetans struggling to maintain their identity while living under Chinese rule.

What she has seen in Fukushima, she says, is not very different from what she has seen in Tibet.

"In both places the people are being told that their lives are being improved, that progress has come and things are moving forward. To a certain extent that's true, but not everyone can walk at the same pace, and those who can't are being left behind," says Watanabe.

In Fukushima, she first set up an e-mail magazine so that residents scattered into temporary housing facilities could read her stories and learn about each others’ struggles.

But she felt there was more in her encounters than she could put into words.

“With each article I wrote, I became more aware that I could only express the residents’ experiences with words of my choice, and not really deliver what it is I felt directly from their presence,” says Watanabe. "Over the past couple of years, residents have begun to feel abandoned and forgotten, and increasingly have no way of delivering their feelings to the outside world. There are some people whom the media have focused on, but many of the speakers who come here come because they have no other forum."

Among those invited to those sessions are elderly women who to this day live in temporary shelters, increasingly isolated as other residents move out; evacuees who have had to leave their homes but started new lives nearby; and farmers determined to stay where they are.

Ota, 43, has spoken at Fukushima no koe wo kiko! twice.

"When I contacted a pediatrician I knew in Tokyo to ask about how he was reacting to the news 'concerning the effects of the nuclear power plant accident on agricultural products,' I expected to hear him say that there was no need to worry," Ota told the audience when he first spoke at the event.

"Instead I learned that he was trying to get his food elsewhere and to not touch our products. On one level I could understand their desire for safety, but at the same time, I was saddened by the call to refuse food from our region."

Looking back on his appearance in Tokyo, Ota adds that mixed feelings remain unresolved even today.

“There are many people in Tokyo who can’t understand why we stay where we are. Many say we should leave," says Ota, whose farm is located about 50 kilometers from the reactors at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant damaged during the quake and tsunami. He makes miso, which is sold at the event, and is working to turn a disused school in his locale into a senior care facility for his community.

"I want to tell people that we accept the dangers and contradictions of our situation, and also need to feel hope and look forward with our everyday lives. Many people still don’t realize that they are responsible for what has happened, and the talk is a chance to remind them.”

Often there’s a dissonance between what the survivors say and what those far away want to hear, says Watanabe.

“In Tokyo, people believe that they are thinking about the people affected by the disaster when they are actually listening to what they want to hear,” she says.

“People ask the question, ‘Why aren’t you more vocal about your views on nuclear power? You are the ones most affected by the disaster and have the right to speak the loudest.’ They can’t answer because their feelings are so much more complicated than we can imagine. For them continuing to live in the area is their statement--it is their form of protest.”

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