Story by Yuta Hirai, Photos by Ai Iwane
English Translation by Kyoko
Published with Permission from Weekly Bunshun Magazine
This past March 11 marked five years since a 9.0-magnitude earthquake rocked northeastern Japan, touching off a series of devastating disasters that left some 22,000 people dead. At least 2,000 of them died as a result of post-disaster trauma or health conditions they developed after the early days of the disaster. Tens of thousands more were forced to flee their homes and are still living in temporary housing. Five years later, the effects of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power plant meltdown continue to haunt the residents of the three heaviest hit coastal prefectures — Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate.
Every March 11 since the disaster, Japanese writer Yuta Hirai and photographer Ai Iwane have been sharing stories
about the disaster’s impact on the women of the Töhoku region for the popular Japanese magazine, Weekly Bunshun. This year, Hirai and Iwane decided to track down the babies who were born in Fukushima on that disaster-filled day. They interviewed four courageous mothers and their little boys, now 5 years old and all bursting with playful energy. With permission from the Weekly Bunshun, they offered their story to the Hawai‘i Herald for publication. We then contracted former Hawaii Hochi staff writer Kyoko Hamamoto in translating the story into English for you.
According to Iwane, 44 babies were born in Fukushima on March 11, 2011. Although she and Hirai located nearly half of the families, most of them declined to be interviewed. Iwane believes they are reluctant to share their stories in order to protect the identity of their children because the full effects of radiation exposure from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant (also referred to as TEPCO) meltdown remain unknown.
Hirai’s research found that as of December 2015, 56,463 Fukushima residents had moved to other parts of the prefecture, while 43,497 have left Fukushima Prefecture.
By December 2015, of Fukushima’s 380,000 children, 166 had been diagnosed with thyroid or other cancers.
Five years after the disaster, workers are still excavating and filling flexible container bags with radioactive soil. They are also circulating and purifying underground water from the mountains, which TEPCO is using to cool down the power plant. That water, now contaminated from the radiation, is then stored in special tanks.
But life goes on for the families in Fukushima. For these survivors, there are children to raise and educate, elderly parents to look after, businesses to operate.
In this story, Yuta Hirai and Ai Iwane introduce you to four families for whom March 11, 2011, brought mixed blessings. Only one father was able to join his wife for the interview; the other fathers were working when the interviews were conducted. All of these families have faced each day since March 11, 2011, with courage, gratitude and grace. These are their stories.
Our thanks to Yuta, Ai, Weekly Bunshun and Kyoko for allowing us to share this story with you.
Mother: Mariko Suzuki, age 32
Son: Shota Suzuki, born at 8:54 a.m., March 11, 2011
Interviewed at Momotan Square in Kunimi-cho (town), Fukushima
When we first met Shota and his mother, he had a bandage near his left eye. As soon as we were introduced to him, he sprinted off. Mariko said that of her three sons, Shota, her youngest, is the most rascal.
Mariko said she and her husband named him Shota because they hope he will grow into a spirited and energetic young man. “But my wish for him being energetic turned him into an overly energetic boy,” she said. “If we take our eyes off of him, he will disappear in a snap.” Like his mother said, we had to chase after Shota in order to interview him.
According to Mariko, children in Fukushima are rarely seen playing outdoors, which could be contributing to the area’s escalating obesity rate. Obesity in Fukushima children ages 5 through 17 is very high compared to other prefectures in Japan. One thing Mariko has noticed is that the children who were born in Fukushima after the disaster are very bright and happy. She thinks it is because of the social services they received following the disaster and because their families took advantage of whatever assistance was offered them.
Mariko and her husband both grew up in Kunimi-cho in northern Fukushima, where they continue to live today. There’s nothing special about their hometown, she said, but they both enjoy its comfortable lifestyle. Up until last year, Mariko worried that radiation exposure might affect their health. However, recent progress in the decontamination process has put her mind at ease. “The report from the county and the local preschools regarding the positive test results, along with caring officials that are concerned about the children’s health, made us feel relieved,” she said.
We asked Shota about the day he was born. With a shy smile, he called it “the day of gura-gura (shake).”
For now, that’s all Shota knows about the horrific day he was born. It’ll take him a few more years before he really understands just how historic a day March 11, 2011, was in Japan’s history.
Mother: Chiharu Shinagawa, age 39
Son: Atsuto Shinagawa, born at 12:38 p.m.
Interviewed at their home in Iwaki City, Fukushima-ken
“My dad’s friend gave me this bike with training wheels!” exclaimed Atsuto, as he happily rode his new bike. Atsuto strikes us as a normal and enthusiastic 5-year-old boy. Besides riding his bicycle, he loves pop music and singing, probably due to the influence of his two sisters, ages 19 and 13. He even struck a cool pose of a pop idol when we took a picture of him.
As she reflected on the day Atsuto was born five years ago, Chiharu recalled hearing someone scream when the earthquake hit. She didn’t understand what was going and still doesn’t remember much from that day.
The Shinagawa family’s home is located on the southernmost tip of Fukushima. They were fortunate — their water and electricity were not affected and their exposure to the radiation was less than in other parts of Fukushima. “We were still worried, so we bought measuring equipment and checked our yard for the radioactive dosage. We made our two daughters evacuate to our relative’s home in Ibaraki-ken, but they came back right away.”
“We like our home better,” said Atsuto’s sisters. Many people who lived near the Fukushima nuclear power plant evacuated to Iwaki City, which felt like the next best place to home.
“What has been hurting us is the very small fraction of the people who are spending their compensation foolishly,” Chiharu said. “Those people are creating tension against the locals of Iwaki. The media reported the situation and many people tend to think that we have been receiving a great amount of compensation. We’ve endured unfair criticism and still suffer from the fact that radiation could be hiding in local produce. On the way to my husband’s hometown of Soma, there were towns that were deserted,” Chiharu said.
Atsuto was about 6 and a half pounds at birth, which isn’t very big. “We named our long-awaited son Atsuto, hoping that he will be a very caring person and helpful to people in need. He is now growing up strong, fighting with his sisters and being scolded by them for being too noisy.”
Mother: Yukiko Uemura, age 30
Son: Yusei Uemura, born at 1:47 p.m.
Brother: Taiki Uemura, age 3
Interviewed at their home in Iwaki City, Fukushima
Yusei was just an hour old when the disaster struck. His mother Yukiko remembers being evacuated towards a hill, wondering what was going to happen next. The first time she nursed Yusei was inside the evacuation car, where what should have been one of her most precious moments as a first-time mother was filled with fear, Yukiko said.
Her husband was just about to leave for work at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant when Yukiko’s water broke. Since Yukiko would be giving birth in no time, he called the plant and said he would be taking the day off to support his wife. Shortly after Yusei was born, the tsunami hit the power plant. “Someone’s got to go,” he told Yukiko and he left to help at the plant.
Yukiko worried about him constantly and begged him to quit his job. He finally did three months later. Her husband told Yukiko that TEPCO had assured its workers that they were safe, saying, “This amount of radiation is okay. We make sure that the plant workers check their radiological dosage before and after work.”
Yukiko doesn’t believe it. She thinks they said that just to put people’s minds at ease, noting that the information given by the government, television, newspaper and the internet has varied since then. She wants the government to be upfront and honest about what is happening regarding the power plant and radiation exposure.
On March 11, 2012, a year after the disaster and Yusei’s first birthday, the Uemura family was featured in the local newspaper, Mimpo Shimbun. Their story was told with color pictures in a large anniversary section. “Yusei is no different from any other boy, except he has been interviewed by the media every March 11. When we asked Yusei about his birthday, he seemed to understand what happened that day, replying, ‘The big earthquake and tsunami came to our town.’”
When they named Yusei, his parents decided to use the kanji, Yu, meaning “kind.” They hope that he will grow into a kind person. During the course of our interview, Yusei gave us candies numerous times, showing us he is indeed a kind-heartedness child.
When Yukiko’s parents and her sister, who has four children, get together with Yukiko’s family, they all have a great time together. Yukiko’s in-laws live nearby, “. . . so, we as a family join forces and overcome hardships,” Yukiko said, smiling.
Mother: Aki Watanabe, age 36; father: Toshimasa, 38
Son: Kuruto Watanabe, born at 2:45 p.m.
Brother: Haoto Watanabe, age 10
Interviewed at their home in Miharu-machi (town), Fukushima-ken
Kuruto came into the world at 2:45 p.m. on March 11, 2011. One minute later, the earth began shaking violently all around his mother, Aki Watanabe, and the emergency warning on her cellular phone went off — it was an earthquake warning. Seconds later, the shelves in the hospital’s delivery room began falling to the ground.
“It’s the end of the world!” Aki thought. “I wonder if my husband has run away already.” In fact, her husband Toshimasa was anxiously waiting outside the delivery room while Aki gave birth. There was no way he was leaving his wife and newborn son.
“When I went inside the room, the midwife was shaking, yet trying her best to do her job.” Toshimasa said that touched his heart. “If we were able to film that moment in the delivery room, it would be amazing.”
Now, five years later, they are finally able to wtalk calmly about what happened that day in March 2011. After going down the emergency stairs, which had cracked during the earthquake, they saw elderly people sitting on chairs outside the building. Nurses were throwing beddings from the window. They said it felt like they were watching a movie. In the ensuing chaos, Aki nursed her baby for the first time in a warehouse next to the hospital. At the time, Aki thought all new mothers received the same help she had been given. But as she reflected on it, she realized how fortunate she had been.
Aki and Toshimasa decided to give their son a name that had nothing to do with the disaster. “We wouldn’t want to celebrate his birthday on the same day when many people had suffered,” said Aki. They also did not want to burden him with the extra stress of having a name related to “becoming a great person.” Thus, naming their baby proved challenging. Finally, their older son, Haoto, suggested the name Kuruto for his new brother, and Kuruto it became.
A short later, Aki and her sons evacuated to Sendai in neighboring Miyagi-ken, where Aki’s parents live. Toshimasa remained in Miharu-cho due to his job. Even in Sendai, Aki worried about the radiation. She sometimes hesitated to take the boys outside to play or even to take them swimming.
After three years there, Aki and the boys moved home to Miharu-cho, where Kuruto enrolled into preschool. Toshimasa had wanted them to stay in Sendai longer, as he was worried about the radiation exposure. Some people suggested that they move to Okinawa, the southernmost prefecture of Japan, but after thinking long and hard about it, they decided to stay put in Miharu.
By 2014, they were getting used to life in Fukushima. Although the food contamination level has yet to show a “0,” Aki hopes people will support Fukushima’s businesses. “If you choose to buy a product from outside Fukushima, we’ll go bankrupt,” she said.
The radiation levels of Fukushima-grown produce are oftentimes reported as being low. However, words like “low and “safe” can be interpreted differently by different people.
If Aki had her way, every supermarket in Fukushima, as well as those in other prefectures, would be required to indicate the radiation contamination levels of their produce. So far, none of them are doing that, which makes Aki wonder about their safety.
While these concerns are always in the back of Aki’s and Toshimasa’s minds, Kuruto helps ease his parents’ worries with his cheery smile and playful antics.
Tökyö native Yuta Hirai graduated from the School of Visual Arts in New York City in 2000. Since returning to Japan, he has worked in various capacities, as a writer/editor, producer, artist and interpreter. Hirai has worked with over 50 magazines and newspapers. One of his most memorable projects was his interview last November with former Uruguay president Jose Mujica. Since March 11, 2011, Great East Japan Earthquake, he has commuted regularly to Fukushima to support recovery efforts there. As a result of the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster, Hirai has become interested in food security issues.
Ai Iwane was born in Tökyö, as well. In the early 1990s, she studied at Petrolia High School, an alterna-tive school in Northern California, where she was en-
couraged to learn self-sufficiency and adopted an eco-conscious lifestyle. Her photography work has involved documenting communities in Hawai‘i, the Philippines, Russia and Taiwan, among other places. She has done photography work for numerous publications, including GQ Japan, Forbes Japan, Rolling Stone Japan and Weekly Bunshun. Iwane currently lives in Tökyö and, like Yuta Hirai, participates in projects in Fukushima’s evacuation zone.