FUKUSHIMA, Japan— Ten months ago I arrived in Japan to cover a historic year—the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings, the fifth anniversary of the 2011 earthquake and nuclear disaster, and the first visit by a sitting U.S. President to Hiroshima. I wanted to document the social impact nuclear technology has had on Japan.
Japan is the only country in the world to experience atomic war and a catastrophic nuclear meltdown. I have a unique family connection to Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a grandson of the only double crewman of the bomb missions, and I’ve spent the past five years in Japan meeting with the survivors of the bombs, or hibakusha as they are called in Japanese.
The hibakusha have been telling audiences their survival stories for decades. They experienced the bombing 71 years ago, and while they never forget their trauma and it never gets easier to describe it, each time they speak they spread their precious testimony in hopes of contributing to a world free of nuclear weapons. However when I turned my focus to Fukushima, I found it difficult to capture stories. Like Hiroshima and Nagasaki, everyone who was in Fukushima at the time of the disaster has a story, but unlike Hiroshima and Nagasaki many are struggling to find their voice.
The disaster is still fresh in the minds of the survivors. Many wish to speak out about their exposure to the radiation, or the dangers of nuclear power, but don’t know what to say, or how to describe what they went through.
The following voices each depict a different aspect of the disaster and show how Fukushima has been diversely affected.
In the next few months I will finish editing the videos I have filmed in Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Fukushima for my blogumentary that will be viewable on YouTube and Facebook at “Hibakusha: The Nuclear Family.”
Kanai Haruko, The Tsunami Survivor
“Now it is a cemetery, but before [the tsunami, Mt. Ohira] was our designated evacuation shelter. It never occurred to me that [the wave] would reach there. By the time we arrived, I saw my house being washed away, where I was just moments before. The tsunami kept coming, and my mind went blank, I had no idea how I could escape.
‘Run away from it,’ I thought. I saw a police car, and rushed in as the policeman drove us off. The shelter was located at the base of the mountain, and the tsunami reached there. Those who headed to there died.There were many deaths. The houses were floating away, but I survived. God saved me. Gratitude—that is my only feeling.”
Kohei Takahashi and Kato Mikako, The Volunteers
“In temporary housing shelters across the Tohoku region, younger residents and families have all but moved out, and elderly residents have nowhere else to go. Myself and some other students from Fukushima University started a volunteer effort a year and a half ago. We moved into the temporary housing for three-month rotations. We cared for the elderly, helped them when they needed, and were meant to provide fresh energy for the stagnant community. The community leader [pictured in pink] told me that at first they weren’t sure about us. She realized that this I was clueless at taking care of myself. She taught me so many things about how I should manner myself, but then later she realized that it gave her something to do, and eventually she trusted me.”
Yuji Onuma, The Man Behind the Slogan
“When I was in middle school I was a good boy and did my homework. When they told us to think about slogans about how great nuclear power was, especially for our town where it brought so much money, I came up with the slogan ‘Nuclear Power is the energy of a bright future!’ That slogan won and I used to be proud to see it on the main street. After the disaster I was ashamed of myself, and of that sign, but I was even more ashamed that the government decided to remove it. We needed that sign to stay up. It was an ironic reminder of the failures of humanity, and a stark lesson that we should learn from.”
Tsutomu Ueno, The Farmer
“The Aizu region was protected from the radioactive fallout carried from the Daiichi nuclear power plant by the rain-shadow effect of the mountain range that separates us from the rest of Fukushima, but we were not protected from the stigma. I have gotten my fruit and rice tested every year since the disaster, and every year it has turned up safe. However, my sales have plummeted. It isn’t fair. What can I do? We say ‘Shogunai’ in Japanese. It means ‘That’s how it goes’. Well I refuse to submit. I have to keep trying. I have to keep my positive spirit and do the best I can to ensure to would be customers that my food is safe.”
“The definition of a hibakusha is someone who was exposed to the atomic bombs, but with another Chinese character and same pronunciation hibakusha means someone exposed to radiation. We stayed at home for one month watching the radiation level increase on our geiger counter. We were outside of the immediate exclusion zone and thought we were safe. Radiation doesn’t care about borders. We were informed to evacuate over one month after the disaster. I know that Fukushima is one of the largest prefectures, and the radiation hasn’t affected everyone the same, but I am certain that I am a hibakusha.”
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.