Itatemura was a village of 7,000 people, known all over Japan for its delicious water, clean air, and fertile soil. I was there earlier this month hosting a group of 22 Japanese people on a journey to discover what we could learn from Fukushima’s disaster.
Across a mountain range and 20 miles from the Fukushima reactors, no one expected the devastation that would come. Itatemura received a larger dump of radiation than any single other place. The entire village was evacuated. My first visit was in 2012 and I have been back once or twice every year. In 2012 it was a ghost town. Untended rice fields, empty houses, a forced silence were all hard on my heart. My heart felt broken in 2014 when a huge industrial scale operation was underway to remove the radiation — which meant removing the 6 inches of cherished topsoil as well. You can read more about this story in AfterNow: When We Cannot See the Future, Where Do We Begin?
One of the people I railed against was the mayor of the village — who I had never met. Norio Kanno was the one who led the charge to remove the soil rather than remediate in slower ways — like with mushrooms. In my own sorrow and grief, I made him into one of the bad guys. He is not. I met him yesterday on our learning journey. An amazing man who has been mayor for 20 years now — and who had strongly held, different ideas about was needed than many of my friends in Itatemura.
“We had to get back to the ‘zero point,’ he said. “And with every 100 people, there were 100 ideas about what should happen.” One his jobs, as he saw it was to work closely with the Japanese government because only they had the resources which would clean up Itatemura. I assumed — in error — that meant he agrees with the maximum economic growth policies of Prime Minister Abe…
“We need less convenience in Japan,” Kanno-san said. “We need less electricity, not more.” “The media would kill me if they heard me say what I will tell you, but the disaster was a gift to us to look sincerely at how we are living and what is important. We must find a new balance. We must learn to follow our hearts – not convenience.
The village is coming alive. At the end of March 2017 residents were allowed to begin to return. For six years, they had only been allowed to occasionally visit their homes during the day. 50 people have returned and Itatemura is no longer a ghost town. The feeling is SO different. The future is uncertain, but there is life after death. The mayor insisted on sculptures that could be touched in the new City Hall. High School students perform on a platform in the new rest area built over what was the most delicious rice field in town. The rest area was built with beauty and is now populated with flowers.
Speaking of flowers, one of the 50 people who has returned grew flowers before the disasters and he is growing them again. Immense beauty. He’s 67 and speaks of how happy he is and how he will grow flowers for another 20 years in his new greenhouses next to wide expanses of solar panels which are part of the effort to let Fukushima use only renewable energy by 2040. Energy from Fukushima for Fukushima.
Kanno-san is another hero. The way the nuclear radiation has been cleaned still hurts my heart. The bags of nuclear waste are stored in small burial mounds all across the valley. One picture of them surrounding a graveyard seems particularly poignant. The cleanup has made this future possible while excluding others. 100 people; 100 ideas.
Kanno-san does not have skill at convening the listening to people. He’s a pusher who gets what he thinks is right done in the village he grew up in and loves. I don’t agree with much of what he’s done or how he’s done it. I just need to remember to hold the tensions of those disagreements rather than vilifying him.