A few days ago, we went into the prefecture of Fukushima, where the Daiichi Nuclear Reactor Accident occurred in conjunction with the Tohoku Earthquake and tsunami. With Fukushima College Professor Ishii as our guide, we were able to look at some of the devastation caused by the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power plant explosion firsthand. The amount of harm that this triple disaster created, displacing, uprooting, and harming the people and the land is something that, as Professor KTP said of the visit afterwards, “cannot be fathomed in just one day.” I had followed some of the news when I was in the United States, but actually going there and seeing everything, hearing nothing but the wind in the air with no birds anywhere, was something else entirely. It might be a little difficult to imagine for people back at home, so I will attempt to describe it using the medium I am comfortable with: sketching.
One of the places that Professor Ishii took us out of the bus to look at was a once residential place that now looked like abandoned plains. As the area was within 20km of the power plant, thee area had been designated as unsafe and so even for those whose houses remained they could not come back. Amidst the eerily silent gray sky and debris, there was a house with scaffolding and a construction machine moving next to it. Someone asked Professor Ishii what was being built over there. He replied, “There are some people who say, ‘I’m going to live here no matter what!’”
When I heard this, I almost cried there. I had brought my sketchbook to sketch some of the scenery we saw, and I had sketched that very house with the scaffolding (above), but for me the sketch itself doesn’t look like anything. It may resemble the house and the scaffolding, with the line that squiggled to the right of it a semblance of the mountains in the distance, but essentially, there was no life to this sketch, no vibrancy. It just looked like a bunch of lines thrown together, and I think part of that has to do with the fact that there were no people there. With my previous sketches, even if I hadn’t been drawing people explicitly, there were always stories that I related that sketch to that had people interacting within it that wove into a larger context. With this sketch, however, I can’t say anything about it except that it was a place damaged by the Triple Disaster and that the people all left. The people, the buildings, and the life that made up the area, are all gone quite literally due to the tsunami and threat of radiation. The fact that even then, even in such a decontextualized space so far removed from what it once was, that someone was intent on rebuilding and coming back, was something that left a very big impression on me.
Even now I’m not quite sure how to describe the emotion that wells up as I think back to this, but something that is definitely there is anxiety for what will happen to that area in the future. The class as a whole had gone to the Watarase Basin a few days before. The Watarase Basin had originally been a dam preventing the pollution coming from the Ashio copper mine from going south to Tokyo, although the government created the dam ostensibly to solve a flooding issue and destroyed an entire village in the process. Yanaka village, the village whose people had been forcibly removed from, was flooded to create this basin, and now, as one of the tour guides during our visit explained, as a result of the lack of people there is now great biodiversity there, designating it as a Ramsar Conservation Site. At that time I wasn’t sure how I felt about that, but after going to Fukushima and the utter lack of people there, I thought back to the Watarase Basin. The removal of people at the Watarase Basin had increased biodiversity, making it an internationally protected wildlife area. The case is different with Fukushima with radiation, but the removal of people, even if it was under the name of evacuation, is the same. In the future, if it is discovered that a lack of people in post-disaster Fukushima lead to a rich wildlife and it was hailed as good, I think I would be enraged.
One of the ideas that we had talked about in class is a term called “deep ecology”, which is an idealized form of living in which all people should return to nature. I think that hailing the Watarase Basin as a reserve with rich biodiversity due to the forced removal of people is an extreme case of this, where one takes people out of the equation altogether. I don’t mean to blame the tour guides or the people that designated it as a Ramsar Conservation Site; it is good that biodiversity increased and the area is now protected, but as one of the students in the class asked, “What kind of wildlife was here when the village still existed?” The amount of suffering felt and paid unjustifiably by the people displaced originally must be considered when thinking about the area as a wildlife reserve. This thought problem of the Watarase Basin is not just unique to Japan; it also has a U.S. parallel. In the 1970s Yosemite pictures by Ansel Adams, the pristine wildlife cleared of people was built upon the forced removal of Native American peoples. Not too long ago, the U.S.’ national reserves were called ‘preserves’ after the idea of preservationism, where nature was something to be kept away from humans, which does not quite work. A very big question for environmental sustainability now lies in how we as people interact with nature and live with nature so that we don’t destroy it, and I think the Watarase Basin, as well as Fukushima are things we need to consider to find the answer.