That’s my best memory of Fukushima from a trip my wife and I took through the Tohoku area two years ago. We drove through the now devastated region for a few days of sightseeing and viewing the colorful leaves of the north country. Fukushima was our last stop before returning to Tokyo and we had booked an onsen ryokan (hot springs inn) nestled amongst the rolling terrain on the outskirts of this bustling city of 300,000 people.
Easily reachable by car from Tokyo in 3.5 hours, or by bullet train in 1.5 hours, Fukushima City – which is the capital city of Fukushima Prefecture – has many natural resources and is one of Tohoku’s busiest and most popular tourist resort areas. Migrating swans call the city’s Abukuma River home in the winter months.
The mayor of Fukushima City, Tanakori Seto, says on the city’s website, ‘Fukushima is blessed by the bounty of nature and a stabilized economy. It is also enriched in culture and we will do our utmost to strive to have a city where we can live in safety and comfort to become a reality.’
But nature delivered a crushing blow to Fukushima when the March 11 monster tsunami swept ashore and knocked out the generators of the Fukushima 1 (better known as Dai-ichi) nuclear power plant, which is located on an 860 acre site in the town of Okuma. This plant includes six boiling water reactors. Numbers 4, 5, and 6 were shut down at the time of the tsunami for pre-planned maintenance.
The rest were shut down automatically after the earthquake, but the tsunami flooded the plant and knocked out the emergency generators. With no power the pumps were unable to bring in water needed to keep the reactors cool. Hydrogen explosions destroyed the outer shells of the building housing reactors 1, 3, and 4 and multiple fires ensued. Another explosion damaged the containment in reactor two.
With radioactive particles spewing into the air the Japanese government ordered those living within a twenty kilometer (12 miles) radius of the plant to evacuate and those within 30 kilometers were told to stay indoors and take precautions against exposure. The U.S. embassy in Tokyo urged people living within a 50 mile radius to leave or stay indoors. Fukushima City lies about 40 miles to the northwest of the Dai-ichi Plant.
The key industry for the city, as well as for the prefecture, is agriculture and there are more than 500 dairy farms in the area. The sale of vegetables and dairy products from the affected area have now been banned despite the fact that Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yukio Edano, a by now very familiar face on Japanese TV, initially said that the contaminated products do not contain dangerous levels of radioactive material. With dairy products alone bringing in $125 million in annual sales this loss of revenue will put a big dent in the area’s economy.
Fukushima City has also taken in a multitude of people who had to evacuate from the danger zone. These radiation refugees are being sheltered in all available open floor space in the Azuma Sports Complex. With cleanup around the damaged reactor still in the works, and no completion date known yet, it may be years before these evacuees can return to their homes. Some fear that their towns, especially those within a few miles of the reactor, will become nuclear ghost towns and cease to exist.
Meanwhile, in central Fukushima City officials are kept busy keeping a close watch on radiation readings, manning the phones, and responding to queries from a worried populace. One spokesman for the team emphasized that the measures taken in banning food and dairy products was, in their estimation, appropriate. Officials in Tokyo have said that local farmers will be compensated for the products they are not allowed to sell, which will help alleviate the economic shock. Still, it may take several more years before Japanese consumers, who are known to be quite finicky about food quality and safety, feel safe in buying products from the blighted area.
Other effects that will be felt by Fukushima include a huge drop in tourism. Trains servicing the area were shut down. Local ports are closed. And deliveries have been hampered by the resistance of truck drivers and delivery people who refused to go anywhere near the region for fear of being contaminated.
It is most likely that many full autumn moons will rise and set over the Fukushima hills before the ryokans in the area see a return of customers seeking fresh produce, excellent seafood, and the relaxing hot baths. Fukushima, and the good people of the area will survive and revive. Tohoku people are known to be a stalwart group. But many of these ryokans, already somewhat shaken by the faltering economy of the last few years, may not survive this new downturn in business.
Joe Peters is a writer for Majirox News and also runs a Tokyo-based executive search company.