FUKUSHIMA, Japan—One of the biggest health problems facing Fukushima after the 2011 nuclear disaster are not directly caused by radiation exposure.
Instead, it’s the fear of exposure that has driven rates of childhood obesity in the past five years, according to the Director of Internal Medicine, Dr. Sae Ochi, M.D. who has spent the last five years researching the social impact of the nuclear disaster.
Parents who are worried about their children being exposed to radiation have discouraged them from playing outside, which has led to more sedentary activities among Fukushima youth.
Their fears are not unfounded. For one, radiation levels have decreased in the prefecture, but not disappeared entirely, according to safecast, the citizen science radiation monitoring program.
And children are most susceptible to radiation exposure, according to the American Thyroid Association. It can cause underactive thyroids, thyroid nodules, and even cancer in kids.
“Its not that the parents shouldn’t fear radiation,” says Ochi, “it’s just that radiation concerns have led to unhealthy practices, when it should be the opposite. People living in areas where radiation lingers should take steps to eat healthier, to move more to combat their exposure. Instead we are seeing the opposite. In lieu of eating vegetables, even vegetables from outside Fukushima, people are eating processed junk food, and fast foods, and staying at home at developing sedentary lifestyles.”
Though radiation-related problems may take years to manifest in children, the consequences of a lack of exercise and physical exertion are immediate.
Enter PEP Kids Koriyama, a free, publicly funded indoor playground 40 miles (64 kilometers) west of the crippled nuclear reactor in the city of Koriyama, where parents can let their kids loose without the threat of radiation.
The Benimaru supermarket chain donated the space, which used to be a storage facility, and the local city government funded the transformation into an over-the-top play area outfitted with all of the amenities a kid could want.
The playground’s interior represents Fukushima’s geography. A giant ball pit with a swing is Lake Inawashiro, Japan’s pacific coast, and mountains are painted on the wall. There’s also an indoor sand garden, a giant moon bounce, play houses, and even a kitchen. (Read “Five Years After Fukushima Nuclear Disaster, Survivors Share Their Stories.”)
“People come from all over Japan to come here. We even get families who evacuated Fukushima as far as Tokyo that come back for the day and let their kids play here,” said Midori Ito, director of PEP Kids. Koriyama is not technically in the evacuation zone, and anyone who chooses to leave receives no compensation.
“I love that I can take my kids here,” mother Chime Fukase told me over the din of cheering and shouting children.
“I can’t say that my concern about radiation is at zero. … I have nowhere else to take my family. I’m grateful for PEP kids to give my daughter a place to enjoy herself,” says Fukase, who is expecting another child.
PEP Kids isn’t Fukushima Prefecture’s only indoor escape: Fukushima City has its own indoor skate park and sports facility called Channel Square. Owner Manabu Tara modeled the facility after Channel Street Skate Park in San Pedro, California.
There people can ride their boards on the ramps, practice yoga, eat and drink at the café, or attend meetings about radiation concerns at the Fukushima 30-Year Project, an NPO that researches the radiation exposure that shares space with the indoor park. It’s name is based on the 30 year half life of the most prevalent radioactive contaminant in Fukushima, Cesium 137.
But unlike PEP kids, Channel Square isn’t publicly funded—which means it’s been more of a challenge to keep Channel Square going.
“Japan doesn’t really have a crowdsourcing culture,” says Tara, “so we have to be creative about how we raise money. We want to compensate for the lack of public land the kids can play on for free, so we don’t want to raise the entrance fee.”
“However if we don’t have money,” he says, “we can’t exist.”
Ari M. Beser is the grandson of Lt. Jacob Beser, the only U.S. serviceman aboard both bomb-carrying B-29s. He is traveling through Japan with the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship to report on the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the fifth anniversary of the Great East Japan earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdowns in Fukushima. Beser will give voice to people directly affected by nuclear technology today, as well as work with Japanese and Americans to encourage a message of reconciliation and nuclear disarmament. His new book, “The Nuclear Family,” focuses on the American and Japanese perspectives of the atomic bombings.