3.11 + 10y = Fukushima revisited

March 11, 2021 marks the 10-year anniversary of the Fukushima nuclear disaster and the mess thereafter. So much has happened in these ten years, and yet so little. I don’t have the bandwidth right now to go into a whole international relations rant, but I do want to share some personal stories of folks immediately affected by the nuclear disaster and the mess thereafter.

tenugui pattern illustrating Fukushima with a heart (2020), photo: Maya Hey

Back then, I was living in California and working full time at Trader Joe’s. In the immediacy of the disaster, customers came in asking about whether the radiation cloud had affected our products inside the store. People were even doubtful of the seaweed snacks, assuming it’d come from Japan (it hadn’t). As someone representing the store, I felt proud answering that our products were safe. But I came to know a more nuanced understanding of “food safety” the following year, when I was WWOOFing at some farms in Japan.

In particular, I noticed that people’s experiences navigating a post-Fukushima marketplace was obscured behind attempts at quantifying the precise amounts of radiation. By 2013, I designed a study and went about interviewing folks in and near Fukushima to hear their stories.

I spoke with a range of farmers, including families producing rice, dairy, vegetables, and tea. Almost across the board, the farmers were lamenting about how the burden of proof was on them, financially too, in order to market their goods.

plump orange tomatoes at a vegetable farm in Fukushima (2013)
photo: Maya Hey

Let’s say that I have two tomatoes. This one has 10 Becquerel. This other one has 5 Becquerel. And if you ask [a consumer] which they would buy, the consumer would definitely buy the one with only 5. They will buy vegetables with lower numbers. When that happens, it doesn’t matter how hard the farmer tries, the consumer bases their decision on just the number. And when that happens, certain farmers are discriminated against. It’s not the farmer who is at fault, but we are the ones who have to bear the burden of those numbers.

fukushima vegetable farmer, interviewed 2013

I remember farmers expressing frustration about how radioactive contamination was represented as the only food safety concern, effectively eclipsing all others. These producers argued that radiation is but one more contaminant as a result of unnatural farming practices, and categorized radiation amongst the many other threats to our global food system including—and, certainly not limited to—genetically modified organisms (GMOs), pesticides, herbicides, hormones, and lack of standardized labeling across international trade.

So, there’s no mistake that radioactive contamination is dangerous; that’s an awareness that I’ve been carrying with me [since] evacuating. But on the other hand, there’s the fact that radioactive contamination is but one type of contamination[…]. Of course, we must be cautious about it, but we cannot be occupied by that alone.

washed up vehicles in abandoned rice paddies, Namie (2013),
photo: Maya Hey

In the past ten years, I went from studying clinical nutrition to learning how foods circulated in food systems to questioning what food safety meant in the public consciousness. But I’ve always been interested in the lived experiences of folks on the ground.

I share this now because I’d rather have these analyses see the light of day than not, however incomplete and imperfect they may be as an academic paper. Because this is more than a report. This is an intimate look at people’s lives, histories, trauma. Who am I to just sit on that or, worse, value it only if it were in peer-reviewed published form?

The stories of these farmers, producers, and families in/near Fukushima deserve to be heard. In the spirit of sharing their stories, I’ve uploaded an unpublished draft of my paper from when I was an undergraduate student at Cal State Long Beach. To be clear, I have zero intention of publishing it now, and the paper is rife with opportunities to revise. But this isn’t about me; it’s about the stories. So consider the intro and methods section as an extended preamble and scroll down to page 5, section 4, where the discussion begins.

You can access the unpublished paper here.

an ad hoc burial site near Minami Soma, lest we forget (2013), photo: Maya Hey