Can Japan Recover?

The Fishermen of Fukushima
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Aug. 31 2011 6:43 PM

Can Japan Recover?

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Slide Show: Taking Refuge in Fukushima. Click image to expand.

Days before the March 11 earthquake, Watanabe-san, a fisherman from Namie-machi in Fukushima, realized something extraordinary was happening out in the Pacific Ocean. "There was a small tsunami exactly a week before the earthquake," he explains, chopping his square, compact palm in the air like a wave, as if to make sure that the important thing he wants to tell me won't get lost in translation between his rootsy, regional Tohoko dialect and my Tokyo-native interpreter. "This tsunami was almost 30 centimeters high! And then, exactly one day before the earthquake, we had an amazingly good catch, like I hadn't seen in a long time. That's why, when I was in the port on the earthquake day, and I saw the big wave in the distance, right away I knew what it was. And what was coming. I knew I had to run."

Watanabe-san breaks his story for a moment, and I take advantage of the pause to take him in. Even Hollywood would have trouble casting a more perfect fisherman: a squat, 50-ish guy with linebacker shoulders and a ruddy outdoor complexion, he speaks with the confidence of a man who knows that although his part of the world may not be big, he knows everything there is to know about it.

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Just as I'm expecting him to continue the harrowing account of how he outran the tsunami, Watanabe-san laughs—and finishes his story instead with a punch line: "I said to myself later, 'Well I should have asked the fish! They would have told me what was happening down there!' " I try to laugh with him, mainly so I won't start choking up; in the four months since the disaster, Watanabe-san has managed to bravely weave a fisherman's tale from the experience of what surely has to be the unluckiest, most unfortunate group of survivors of the Japanese triple disaster.

Namie-machi is located along Fukushima's coast, near where the Takase river flows into the sea—the two Japanese characters in the word Namie mean wave and river. It's an excellent place for fishing, but it was a very, very bad place to be on March 11: Namie-machi is located four miles north of the TEPCO's Fukushima Daiichi plant. Earthquake, tsunami, radiation—the 20,000 residents of Namie-machi got hit with a triple hammer of biblical proportions. And then it got worse: The villagers of Namie-machi fled north in the hours after the reactor disaster, because they believed winter winds would blow the radiation south. They didn't have the government computer forecast that would have told them the wind—and the radiation—was following them, so they were all exposed.

The local Fukushima government has found temporary housing for most of the Namie-machi evacuees, but Watanabe-san and 30 other villagers are still living here at Noji Onsen, a 61-room hot springs hotel tucked away in mountains above Fukushima City, about 75 kilometers from the Daiichi reactor. The Japan National Tourism Organization arranged for me to visit the onsen hotel, where the prefecture's government moved 100 radiation-zone evacuees in April. "We lost all our bookings after March 11," the hotel manager, Sato-san, explains. "But with the evacuees, we could keep going and keep our staff employed."

Going to onsen is just about my favorite thing to do in Japan, and I've been to quite a few of the famous ones (Nyuto, Hakone, Matsuyama). So when I arrive, I can see right away that Noji Onsen is strictly for locals: The lobby furniture is vintage '70s Ikea, the carpets a bit worn. Still, Noji's staff render service (Hai! Dozo!) with proud, efficient Japanese formality, and the waters here have a history. "The hotel has been in the same family for five generations, and the spring source dates from the late Meiji period," Sato-san tells me. "Our hot spring water is sulfuric and good for stomach and digestive organs, skin, allergies, and female diseases."

It's really a stroke of fortune that Watanabe-san and his fellow Namie villagers landed in this healing place. For hot springs are where Japanese go to soothe not just body but also spirit—the onsen is Japan's great everyman pleasure, a democratic refuge from the stresses and obligations of everyday life. Here, you strip off your clothes, and along with them your status. You check your shoes at the door, receive a uniform of bathrobe (yukata) and slippers. Then you simmer out your stress in the mineral pools, sometimes for hours, sitting naked alongside friends and strangers. A Japanese onsen always feels to me like a happy pajama party of adults padding around, wrapped in yukata and drinking beer or tea. But as I pad around the Noji Onsen lobby after my bath, wrapped in the hotel-issued blue-and-white robe, I notice something: Watanabe-san and his fellow Namie-machi villagers aren't wearing yukata, they're dressed in "outside" clothes. They aren't padding, they're fidgeting; some slip outside, restlessly, to smoke.

"When we got to this onsen, we were so excited. We took baths three, four times every day! But now we only take one," the fisherman tells me. He laughs again, but this time only for a moment.

"We want to go back," Watanabe-san says, abruptly, dropping his fisherman's easy banter. Now his voice grows excited, urgent. He tells me that 80 fishing boats were lost to the tsunami in Namie-machi, but his was swept back to shore. It's there still. It could be repaired. He could start fishing again. "The government said next year, maybe January, we can go back. If the reactor is stabilized. The reactor must be stabilized."

I'm stunned. I don't know what to say to Watanabe-san. Surely he knows this is an impossible dream. Namie-machi is literally next door to the Fukushima reactor. Nobody, not TEPCO, not the government, knows when, or even if, it can be made safe again. And even if it is, the fishing area around Namie is contaminated with all the radioactive waste water used in the emergency cooling of the reactor.

Then I realize what Watanabe is doing, for I did it, too, before coming here to Fukushima. When information is conflicting, changing, or nonexistent, we fall back on the things we're familiar with. We choose what we want to believe. I decided to rely on the Japanese education ministry's official radiation readings (now helpfully printed every day next to the weather in Japanese newspapers), and I came to Noji Onsen, even though it sits a few kilometers inside the 80-kilometer safety perimeter recommended by the U.S. government advisory. I'm pretty sure that was OK. But the villagers of Namie-machi fled north, and that was not. In the absence of information, the order we bring to the chaos can only take us so far. "The catch should be really excellent, right now, in Namie-machi," says Watanabe-san. "I really miss the sea."

Daisann McLane is a journalist who splits her time between New York and Hong Kong. Her dispatchesfrom Hong Kong can be read on Slate and also on her blog, "Learning Cantonese."

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