Voices from Fukushima: Michiko Ouchi

(The following is an article written by a Japanese farmer for the magazine of Ainoukai, an AFA member in Japan.)

The earthquake suddenly struck at 2:46 pm on the 11th of March.

I was on the second floor of the local agricultural cooperative’s office with about 20 other people, and we hid under the desks and prayed for the tremors to subside. The skies which had been sunny till then suddenly turned gray and large flakes of snow started to fall. It was a very eerie experience, as if the devil himself had appeared. The men on the first floor called out for us to come down, but because there were people as old as 80 among us, we decided to stay under the desks. After the first shock passed, we made our way down to the store, only to be confronted by the sight of the store in complete disarray.

After such a shock, I was really happy when my son came to pick me up. At home, the damage was not as much as I feared, given the force of the tremor. But the damage was more apparent in the surrounding houses where the roof-top tiles had fallen off. The house of my eldest son, who lives nearby, was damaged as well and so he brought his wife and child to our house. We spent a cold night without electricity; six of us huddled together in a dark room. Aftershocks continued throughout the night, and all I could do was to wish for daybreak to come. Thankfully, we still had access to water and gas, and by nightfall the next day, the electricity supply was restored. Warmth returned to our house, and I felt thankful for the electricity that we ordinarily take for granted. It was around this time that the accident at the nuclear plant occurred. There had been a hydrogen explosion. In that instant, I felt as if I had been pushed into the depths of despair. The place where we lived, Nihonmatsu, was around 50~60 km from the nuclear plant. The radiation could reach us at any time. The invisibility of the threat added to my fears.

We acted quickly after the earthquake. All the vegetables were harvested, and firewood and water was brought into the house. Already gasoline and kerosene could not be bought easily; we had to line up for 5 to 6 hours just to buy 2000 yen worth of fuel. So I tried to make use of the things we had at home. Charcoal briquettes bought 15 years ago were used to heat the kotatsu (a low table covered with a blanket). Water for baths would be heated by burning the firewood. But the real struggle had only just begun – the effort spanning over 4 decades to grow healthy and safe organic produce was all destroyed in a moment because of the nuclear accident.

Three days after the initial shock of the disaster, we settled down a bit and even started making light meals for people who moved away from Fukushima. We made miso soup and steamed spinach using the vegetables from our farm. However, the government issued a shipment ban on most of the produce, including spinach, so we could not serve the evacuees. We felt so helpless. We could not sell our vegetables; we could not even eat it. I had never thought it possible that we would not have food, because we are farmers. The planting of seeds for the new crop usually takes place in March and April and makes these very busy months, but this year I felt robbed of the will and energy to work.

Though I received words of encouragement from people around me, I did not feel like I could pour my efforts into growing rice and vegetables whose safety I could not guarantee.

I wonder how far the dark maze will continue. Will we be able to see a glimmer of hope at the end of the tunnel within my lifetime? The television brings images of the courageous workers at the nuclear facility, working hard to contain the damage. I hope that their efforts are rewarded and that the crisis will end quickly. Whenever there is an aftershock, I always find myself worrying about the power station. I hope that the crisis resolves favorably as soon as possible.

The government recently gave the go-ahead to plant the next crop, but if the radiation levels after harvesting exceed a certain level, the produce cannot be sold in the market. Even if the levels are normal, there is still a lingering fear that nobody will buy food from the area where I live.

I have always experienced joy in working with nature, in growing my own food, in gaining trust and providing food for others. This joy is no more; all that is left is sadness and despair.

In the garden outside, the spring flowers are in profusion, and the cherry blossoms are beginning to bloom. Although the weather is fine and one can feel that spring is in the air, my heart is heavy. We still do not know how long the effects will be felt. I am worried, not about elder people like myself, it is the plight of the generations to come- the effect on my children and grand-children that worries me the most.

Writen by Michiko Ouchi (15th April 2011)

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