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Fukushima Anniversary

Fukushima: A photographer's 10-year journey through wreckage and recovery

Ko Sasaki's vision of Fukushima is of a land in limbo

Pictured 31 days after the tsunami, the Tokyo Electric Power Company's crippled Fukushima Daiichi Power Station: "Fukishima is a big place but whenever people hear news about Fukushima Daiichi, for good or bad, people hear the name, Fukushima, and many people think that all of Fukshima is affected by the fallout. A decade later, that hasn't changed," said photographer Ko Sasaki. (Photo by Ko Sasaki)

TOKYO -- Photographer Ko Sasaki drove me through the Fukushima evacuation zone in the summer of 2016. I had been there twice before to record programs for National Public Radio in the U.S. and NHK in Japan, but both had hired me to report on post-disaster stories of resilience, to show what had changed since the March 11, 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown. Sasaki was showing me what hadn't.

Sasaki is a seasoned professional. His photographs appear in The New York Times, Forbes magazine, Wired and other mainstream publications. But his obsession with Fukushima and its people comes from a personal commitment: He feels that the region is still being exploited, mistreated and misrepresented by Japan's government and corporate officials, who cling to tatemae (public face and behavior, or "keeping up appearances"), he says, without a hint of honne (genuine inner sentiment and emotional truth).

He is galled by the government's plan to start the Olympic torch relay in Fukushima this month. It will bring nothing to the people who are still suffering, he points out, and will do next to nothing to revive the local economy or raise real awareness of the ongoing struggles, psychological and otherwise, in the wake of nearly 19,000 dead or missing.

In October of last year, the Japanese government announced that it plans to dump water from the storage tanks into the sea off the coast of Fukushima after 2022. As of September last year, the stored water totaled 1.23 million tons, with an additional 180 tons of water contaminated every day. The water has been filtered and the government claims it is no longer contaminated.

But Sasaki says that the plan is careless and insensitive. Next year, when the evening news reports that Fukushima's water containment tanks have been emptied into the sea, consumers across Japan will reject any claims to the safety of the region's products, science be damned. Every effort to win public trust will be washed away with the water.

In 2016, through our meetings with survivors in regions surrounding the nuclear plant, our drives around vacant coastal back roads and slow strolls through abandoned schools and dilapidated gymnasiums, shops, restaurants and cemeteries, I felt a kinship with Sasaki, a sense of why he felt this ongoing story was so urgent.

For me, too, the mission feels partly personal. My Japanese grandparents are both from northern Japan, where they raised my mother and uncle, and where I attended kindergarten. After 3/11, my mother, who now lives in the U.S., asked me what happened to Rikuzentakata, a coastal city devastated by the wave. "That was where I first saw the ocean," she told me, recalling a childhood visit with her father. "It was at night at the inn dad had reserved. The moon showed the sea to me."

Sasaki's vision of Fukushima is of a land in limbo. His photographs show life frozen in place, bodies broken, habits numbly reinhabited, technology harnessed for useless display. His pictures are photo-ops of missed opportunity. "Life goes on," we like to say, and it does, but Sasaki's photos of Fukushima over the past 10 years speak a more essential imperative: You must change your life.

All photos and captions by Ko Sasaki.

Yamagata City, March 17, 2011 -- 6 days after 3/11

People fled costal Fukushima to escape the radiation and sought shelter in this gym in Yamagata City, further inland. It was a chaotic situation and there was very little information for the evacuees.

Yamagata City, March 17, 2011 -- 6 days after 3/11

Ukedo, April 15, 2011 -- 36 days after 3/11

A dog half-buried by the tsunami in Ukedo district, the coastal area of Namie. The entire area was washed away. On this day, 300 police and fire department officials searched Ukedo and located 21 bodies, adding to the 10 bodies found the day before. Searches for survivors were not conducted immediately after the tsunami due to the nuclear meltdown and evacuation. Ten years later, there are still people searching the area for missing family members.

Iitate village, Jan. 15, 2012 -- 310 days after 3/11

Part of what seemed like an endless decontamination effort, workers attempt to decontaminate the school's swimming pool in Iitate Village, some 40 some kilometers north of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant. No one here expected to be affected by the plant's accident, but on March 15, wind carrying radioactive plumes blew northwest of the plant, where the particles mixed with falling rain and snow. Researchers estimate that 14 million cubic meters of decontaminated waste will be collected from all over Japan at a cost of 400 billion yen ($3.7 billion). The government promised Fukushima that the waste would be stored there for only 30 years, but there is no plan to move it elsewhere and no one else in Japan will accept it.

Rancher and his cow, Omaru, Dec. 23, 2015 -- 1,748 days after 3/11

Fumikazu Watanabe feeds a last meal to his sickened cow before scientists dissect her. After the nuclear disaster, farmers were instructed to kill their cattle and livestock (satsushobun -- animal euthanasia) in the regions surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power plant. Some, like Watanabe, refused. Scientists joined Watanabe and other ranchers keeping cattle in the area alive. But when cows got sick, ranchers and researchers both tried to find out if the cause was radiation fallout. Dissections were undertaken. After 10 years, scientists concluded that cattle illnesses were unlikely to have been caused by radiation exposure.

Flower Ukedo, March 11, 2016 -- 1,827 days after 3/11

A woman brings flowers to Ukedo for the fifth-year commemoration. If residents hadn't been forced to evacuate the region in the wake of the nuclear meltdown, many more would likely have been rescued.

Protest in Fukushima Koriyama, March 12, 2016 -- 1,828 days from 3/11

Protesters hold banners that read, "Compensate! Apologize!" or "Don't Discard Victims!" Thousands initially gathered to protest against the nuclear power station in Fukushima and the restarting of other nuclear plants across the country. But the movement soon burned out. From the beginning, many hid their feelings about radiation out of fear and shame. It's something you can't see or smell, and its long-term effects on human health remain unclear. Conflict can break up families, friends and communities, so the protests never really caught on in Fukushima.

4,000 WORKERS DAILY Okuma / Futaba, Feb. 21, 2017 -- 2,174 days after 3/11

Four-thousand people now work daily inside the plant, according to the plant's owner and operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO). In 2011, TEPCO declared that the decommissioning process would be completed in 30 to 40 years. The decommissioning of the undamaged second floor of the Fukushima Daiini Power Plant is now projected to take roughly 30 years. But with work being done on the first floor at the same time, TEPCO has extended its estimate to 40 years.

In 2016, Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) tallied the total cost of the accidents at 22 trillion yen ($202 billion). But new figures produced by a think tank in 2019 raised the figure by an eye-watering 81 trillion yen ($743 billion). However, if melted fuel does not need to be removed from the Fukushima plant, and the confinement method is accomplished with concrete structures, as it has been in Chernobyl, total costs may be reduced to 35 trillion yen ($321 billion).

RED WILL MAKE YOU CRY Futaba, Feb. 23, 2017 -- 2,176 days from 3/11

A red flag hangs beside a sign showing air radiation dose rate level in four colors posted by Maeda Kensetsu, a construction company, to warn workers of the danger in the restricted area of Futaba.

MONITORING POST Naraha, Feb. 23, 2017 -- 2,176 days after 3/11

A monitoring post to measure air dosage rates outside a temporary storage site for bags of contaminated soil collected in Naraha. Since the accident, government officials, scientists and nonprofit activists all have different measurements to assess safe levels of radiation dosage. It's Kafkaesque. There's a system that delivers numbers and statistics all across Fukushima, but nobody can agree on what they really mean. As time passed, people who knew they'd been exposed to radiation had to study the effects by themselves and decide upon personal levels of safety and risk. This naturally caused division and disagreement.

FUTABA, Feb. 23, 2017 -- 2,176 days after 3/11

Cherry blossoms bloom each spring, of course, but after all that has changed in the region, and all that hasn't, they have become reminders of how deeply the people miss their hometowns.

ROBOT TECH to collect melted fuel rods inside the containment vessels -- Naraha, June 28, 2017 -- 2,301 days after 3/11

Demonstration of a simulator that can be used to train workers to enter the crippled Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant. This is a water tank that can test the robot at the Naraha Remote Technology Development Center.

Hisanohama, Dec. 2, 2019 -- 3,188 days from 3/11

A woman carries a baby on her back while working at the fish market in Hisanohama, in Iwaki city. Her husband's boat has come back with the day's catch. The entire family is sorting the fish for an auction. Hisanohama fish market was closed for eight and a half years. The 2019 reopening was a welcome, if meager, sign of recovery.

FISH TESTING. Onahama, Dec. 4, 2019 -- 3,190 days from 3/11

Fish caught in the morning are brought in for radioactivity screening at the lab inside the market. Fukushima is an agricultural and fisheries-dependent prefecture, but the fallout from Fukushima Daiichi power station made its products untouchable for many Japanese consumers. It has taken a long time to regain trust.

Hisanohama, Dec. 4, 2019 -- 3,190 days from 3/11

Every morning when it's still dark, Tatsuo Niitsuma is seen off by his wife Yoko at the harbor. The 2011 tsunami took Niitsuma's daughter but he still goes fishing daily. The ocean is also his life.

Futaba/ Okuma, Dec. 9, 2019 -- 3,195 days from 3/11

The Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant site is covered with 1,246,960 m3 (as of Feb. 18, 2021) of treated contaminated water stored in massive tanks. According to TEPCO, all the storage tanks will be full by the fall of 2022, and the government has announced a plan to filter and dump the water into the sea off Fukushima.

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