Some experiences are so horrific that it seems almost impossible to find sufficient words to describe how they affected people.
Certainly, that is the case with the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami disaster that led to the triple meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
That is probably why some people in the disaster areas resort to composing short poems based on the traditional “tanka” format to express the emotion that overwhelm them.
One resident composed this poignant poem on his thoughts about being forced to leave his ancestral home: “I’m now leaving/ My home with anger/ Though I had done/ Nothing wrong.”
The late Kenichi Tanigawa, a leading postwar folklorist and poet, compiled a collection of 130 or so tanka poems written by people caught up in the events of March 11, 2011. The anthology, titled “Kanashimi no Umi” (Sea of sorrow), was published in 2012, the year before he died.
On this sixth anniversary of the disaster, there are still disturbing signs of complicated, multi-layered divisions tormenting people in Fukushima Prefecture. Around 80,000 people from the prefecture, where the crippled nuclear power plant is located, are still living as evacuees. Divisions have emerged between people from Fukushima and those outside the prefecture as well as between evacuees and other residents of the prefecture and even among evacuees themselves.
A survey of Fukushima Prefecture residents at the end of February by The Asahi Shimbun and Fukushima Broadcasting Co., a local television broadcaster, found that 30 percent of the respondents said they had faced discrimination simply because they are residents of the prefecture.
One evacuee wrote a poem to vent his feelings about this: “Don’t come close to me/ So I won’t catch your radiation/ a child says/ To a kid from an evacuated area.”
It is depressing to know that the false rumors behind these cruel words are still circulating.
It is impossible to discuss the situation in Fukushima Prefecture without referring to such topics as nuclear power plants, radiation, decontamination, evacuation and compensation.
These are issues that sorely test the knowledge and thinking of the talker.
It is widely believed that the problems facing Fukushima are complicated and intractable. Many people feel intimidated by the difficulty of the problems.
This is the “wall” that sociologist Hiroshi Kainuma pointed out two years ago, and it still exists.
This spring, evacuation orders for wide stretches of coastal areas in the prefecture will be lifted, allowing some 32,000 people to return home. But there is still no prospect of a homecoming for 24,000 others.
At the same time, housing aid for people who voluntarily left their homes in the prefecture will be terminated.
Some Fukushima residents will finally return home, while others are opting not to. Still others can’t return even if they want to.
As differences in the positions and decisions of evacuees have surfaced afresh, some families are becoming targets of malicious rumors fueled in part by disgruntlement about different amounts of compensation paid to victims.
An investigation by Takuya Tsujiuchi, a researcher at Waseda University, has found that stress levels among Fukushima evacuees currently living in the Tokyo metropolitan area have taken an upturn this year.
FORGING NEW TIES
This nation’s postwar history has witnessed many similar divisions and attempts to heal them.
Look at the Minamata disease problem, for instance.
The city in Kumamoto Prefecture is known for Minamata disease, a neurological syndrome caused by mercury poisoning blamed on contaminated wastewater discharged into Minamata Bay from a Chisso Corp. chemical plant.
The public health disaster engendered bitter antagonism between victims and other citizens. Some victims became targets of verbal abuse. They were called “fake patients” and accused of having a “palace built on weird disease.”
But the abusers also faced discrimination once they left the city simply because they were from Minamata.
Tanigawa, who traveled across the nation for folklore research, was born in Minamata.
“Only people born and raised in Minamata can understand the cutting pain we feel when we say, ‘I’m from Minamata of Minamata disease,’ when asked, ‘Where are you from?” he once said.
Tanigawa probably felt strong sympathy for the sorrow of Fukushima evacuees who only say they are from the Tohoku region since they can’t bring themselves to disclose they are from Fukushima.
Some two decades ago, Minamata’s municipal government started a program to re-establish ties among citizens as a way to heal divisions.
The local government named the program “moyai naoshi” (re-mooring) to indicate that is was an attempt to build fresh ties between people like tying boats with ropes.
The program was designed to provide experiences that help bring citizens together for tasks such as separating rubbish for ecological disposal and planting trees to create forests.
“What is vital is for people to have dialogue while accepting differences in their opinions,” says Masazumi Yoshii, who was the city’s mayor when the effort started.
The program still has a long way to go before achieving its goal. Sixty-one years since Minamata disease was officially recognized, there are still unfounded rumors about Minamata disease.
In January, an elementary school student from another town in Kumamoto Prefecture said, “I can catch Minamata disease” after a sports match with a team from Minamata.
“Even desperate efforts by citizens cannot easily solve the problem,” says Masami Ogata, who heads a group of Minamata disease “storytellers,” or Minamata disease survivors who volunteer to talk about their experiences at the Minamata Disease Municipal Museum.
“All we can do is to face what is happening now and tackle problems one at a time,” Ogata says. “That’s our message from Minamata.”
THE TASK AHEAD
Through his life, Tanigawa, the folklorist, loved the islands of Okinawa. The southern island prefecture has also been suffering from divisions because of the heavy presence of U.S. military bases there.
The prefecture, which occupies only 0.6 percent of national land, is host to 71 percent of all facilities exclusively used by the U.S. military in Japan.
Against this backdrop, residents of the prefecture have been divided over related issues, such as “peace” versus “economy.”
The cultural climates of different parts of the nation are attractive in their own unique ways.
Tanigawa, who knew that well, didn’t like arguments focused exclusively on the key problems facing specific regions, such as nuclear power plants for Fukushima and U.S. bases for Okinawa, even if they are driven by a sense of justice and a desire to support the regions.
Outside supporters “are only interested in ‘Minamata of Minamata disease,’” he said. That, he pointed out, has created a situation where Minamata itself, with all its diverse aspects, has been forgotten. His words should be taken very seriously.
One-sided arguments on problems facing Fukushima that ignore the actual feelings and thoughts of local residents cannot draw the attention of people who regard the issues as too complicated and intractable.
As a result, the burden of dealing with problems that should be of concern to the entire nation will continue to be shouldered only by specific regions.
This is a warning that the media should also take seriously.
A woman expressed her yearning for Fukushima before the disasters struck: “I don’t want to see/ Fukushima known worldwide/ I just long for/ the tranquil region Fukushima once was.”
The reconstruction of coastal areas in Fukushima Prefecture has just begun.
The rest of the nation should stand ready to offer support and sympathy to the local communities to help them go through the long, arduous process.