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On the 11th of March, 2011, the fourth largest earthquake since records began struck off the north-east coast of Japan, causing a tsunami with waves up to 40 metres high.
Heading inland at 435 miles per hour, the tsunami battered the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, triggering hydrogen explosions at three reactors. Millions went without power or water, 160,000 people were evacuated, and 16,000 lost their lives in the earthquake. Overnight, Fukushima went from being a name unknown in the western world to one synonymous with catastrophe.
After almost a decade, the exclusion zone around the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant has been reduced, and gradually, residents are returning. The Real Fukushima project was created with the intention of providing visitors with an insight into the disaster area and its efforts to begin anew. We talked to founder and tour guide Karin Taira about the relief effort, the area’s samurai history, and the tenacity of the Japanese spirit.
Hello Karin. Could you tell us a little about yourself?
After growing up in Tokyo, I studied in the UK about ten years ago. I was in Bangladesh working at a small NGO when the disaster occurred. I felt that I could do nothing for Japan during the hardest time. That’s why I wanted to do something for Japan when I returned. Since 2015 I’ve been working for this region.
How was Real Fukushima founded?
I met Shuzo Sasaki, who was the head of the regional office of Fukushima Prefecture Government in 2017. I’d decided to start a tour project by myself at the time, and he visited me to work together because he thought developing a tour for international people was very important. That’s why we started Real Fukushima. From there it took two years to receive my Japanese national government tour license.
What do you want people to experience?
We want to show what’s really happening here, without political motivations or bias. There’s a lot of misleading perceptions of Fukushima Prefecture which come from the media. There are a lot of fake photos and fake news articles which tell unbelievable stories: frogs with eight legs due to radiation, things like that. Fukushima’s case is very important to learn about. Nuclear accidents are not a local problem, but an international issue. That’s why we wanted to develop a tour for people from overseas. When you come to this area you’ll learn how sad the nuclear accident was for the local community, but also you’ll see lots of progress for the recovery as well. We show both sides, I think.
Many people are surprised to see how well the revitalisation progress is going. They say they thought Fukushima would be a devastated no-mans-land. When they come, they are surprised to learn people are returning. They see progress. The town is still quite empty, but the people who have returned are positive and encourage each other. Without new jobs it remains difficult for young people to settle back, but we will do our best and keep fighting.
Could you tell us some positive stories?
The government has made huge progress with decontamination and revitalisation, while at the same time local people have been doing lots by themselves to create something new or something small but wonderful. In addition, the Fukushima prefectural government has created an initiative to install solar panels and windmills, and are aiming to have 100% renewable energy by 2040. Some local restaurants have returned, and they offer really good meals! A handful of farmers have returned too, and they’re more positive towards organic agriculture, because they are more aware of the effects of pollution. They have very good quality food here, but people are still cautious of Fukushima produce, even though all food is checked thoroughly and radiation levels are ‘none detected’. Also, each reopened town has a new community centre planted by the national government to encourage people to return.
Then there’s the Olympics. If more international people come and see the current status of Fukushima then we’ll be very happy.
The Tohoku people are well known for their samurai history. What do you think makes the ‘Tohoku spirit’?
Many people would say resilience. They are very proud of this region because it has a long samurai history, some say a thousand years. One feudal clan called Soma dominated this
region for 750 years.
The Soma clan – weren’t they famous for horseback riding?
Yes. Each summer in Soma City we have a historic horse samurai festival, where hundreds of local people become real samurai. They wear armour and ride on horses, and they have races and ceremonies at traditional shrines.
What do you think the future holds?
The government are focussing on renewable energy and robotics, because for the decommissioning of the power plant they need more high-tech robots. Human access is limited because the reactors have such high levels of radiation. Before this disaster the biggest industry here was nuclear. Thousands of people worked at the nuclear power plant, but now we need alternative industries to create jobs for this region. While it will be a long way to see the outcome, we are all hopeful for the future of Fukushima.
In 2020 the Olympic torch relay begins in Fukushima, in what was once the exclusion zone. Will you be attending?