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information about Fukushima published in English in Japanese media info publiée en anglais dans la presse japonaise

Rice harvesting in Fukushima

November 22, 2013


FUKUSHIMA: Rice farmers sense glimmer of hope after nuclear disaster





By TAKEMICHI NISHIBORI/ The Asahi Shimbun Staff Writer

It is early October and an idyllic scene is unfolding beneath a clear autumn sky. As red dragonflies flit by, the air is filled with the melodious hum of combine harvester reaping through rice fields.

Residents of Hirono in Fukushima Prefecture have been waiting nearly three years to witness this moment.

The reason? The 2011 disaster at the Fukushima No.1 nuclear power plant rendered the land useless for planting rice.

“It is really a good feeling to see the rice piled up in the vats again,” says 49-year-old Kazuya Igari.

When he began planting again this year, Igari faced a very different situation compared with before the nuclear catastrophe.

He lived 200 meters from the coast. His home was destroyed in the tsunami generated by the Great East Japan Earthquake. His tractor and other farming equipment were also swept away, and his rice paddies were submerged in mud. He now lives in temporary housing with his 49-year-old wife and 25-year-old daughter.

Igari farms a plot about 1.2 hectares wide. The land is actually rented from a friend. It lies more than 4 kilometers further inland than his own farm.

Like most rice farmers in town, this is a side job for Igari. Yet this didn’t stop him from buying used farming equipment to go about his tasks.

“These paddies give me a purpose in life. I didn’t want to give them up,” he explains.

At the end of April, Igari sprinkled potassium chloride on the decontaminated paddies. The chemical compound was donated by the town to help prevent rice plants absorbing radioactive cesium. A few days later, Igari was tilling the fields on a second-hand tractor he had just bought.

“I was so happy to be back. Nothing brings me more joy than planting rice,” he said.

Hirono lies within a radius of 20 to 30 kilometers from the stricken power plant. Two days after the nuclear accident, triggering reactor meltdowns, the town’s population of 5,500 or so was ordered to evacuate.

In April of that year, rice farming was effectively banned under the special measures law on nuclear emergency preparedness.

The restrictions were lifted last year, but the town asked farmers to hold off from planting rice until the effects of radiation were better understood.

The town joined forces with 30 farmers to begin trial cultivations at each of the area’s 39 water sources. In the end, all the harvested rice fell within permissible levels of radioactive material, so the town lifted its calls for restraint and the farmers were permitted to grow rice freely again from this year.

After two years of neglect, though, the town’s paddies were overgrown with weeds. The surface layer had been churned up, adding to the decontamination. The grass was deeply embedded in the soil. Igari worried that his rice would grow too tall if the nutrient content of the soil was too high. His fears were well-founded: The rice did shoot up, and subsequently collapsed when the ears finally sprouted in August. The yield was around 80 percent of a normal harvest.

The harvested rice will be bought by the government through an agricultural cooperative and then stored. This removes concerns about the rice not selling because of radiation fears. The rice will be stored for five years, and then used as livestock feed.

“We worked so hard to improve soil conditions and the like because we wanted to make delicious rice for people to eat. Part of me still feels frustrated with the situation,” Igari lamented.

The town says that only 101 of its 320 or so rice farmers planted rice this year.

There are some farmers, though, who are ready to face down public fears by selling directly to consumers without going through the cooperative.

Ryohei Niitsuma, 54, began keeping ducks on his rice paddies from around 10 years ago in an attempt to eradicate bugs and weeds without using agricultural chemicals or fertilizers. His organic rice proved popular, and he had a substantial customer base throughout the country. Before the earthquake, Niitsuma had over 100 buyers from the Tokyo metropolitan area and elsewhere. This year, though, around 30 customers have canceled their orders, saying they have small children to worry about.

Last year, he ignored the town’s calls for restraint. Niitsuma began planting rice and also released ducks on 1.5 hectares of his 3.5-hectare plot. In autumn, he harvested around 400 bags of rice. A local agricultural cooperative checked them for radioactive particles and they all fell below detectable limits. After safety levels were confirmed this year, Niitsuma planted rice seedlings on 5 hectares of land. This included fields he is taking care of for neighbors who abandoned their farms.

He said he was egged on by his satisfied customers. Immediately after the earthquake and tsunami disaster, with rice planting on hold, Niitsuma put down his scythe and picked up his car keys. With his 55-year-old wife, Masae, he took a road trip around Japan to visit customers. The purpose was to extend his greetings and explain to everyone that his family was safe and well. Niitsuma was met with a flood of support. Customers repeatedly told him that “nothing tastes as good as your rice, so please grow it again next year.”

When night falls in Niitsuma’s neighborhood, many nearby homes remain unlit. This is because they are empty. With many part-time farms, elderly couples were left to farm alone when sons and daughters evacuated with their children and never returned. The task often proved too much, and farms were abandoned. Niitsuma says he knows people who have already bought houses in the nearby city of Iwaki.

“The government can repair the roads and water service, but the sight of rice harvesting will never return unless we have the farmers,” he says.

In better times, the town was alive with the laughter of children as they headed to and came back from school through fields of rice stalks fluttering in the wind. Niitsuma clings to the hope that this scene is not gone forever.


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