The second I stepped foot onto the platform, I was immediately greeted with a square pink banner with the words “Welcome to Fukushima!” (in Japanese). At the center of the pale pink banner was a white bunny with open arms surrounded by a rainbow of flowers. This image perfectly captured my experience throughout the weeklong program at Fukushima: the friendly people welcomed me with unconditional kindness and the beautiful nature surrounded me everywhere I went.
Three years have passed since the March 11, 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami disasters. I remember seeing video footages and photos of the damage through the lenses of news sources. Three years later, I still read articles on the current status of Fukushima, but again through the lens of another. The Nishimiya Fellows Program 2014 gave me the precious opportunity of seeing Fukushima through my own eyes.
The first night, I was greeted by the warm hospitality of Fukushima Medical University students. After giving a tour of the city near the station, the students took us to a delicious udon noodle restaurant, where we were introduced to speciality dishes. We talked about the differences in medical education between the United States and Japan and also the typical college student life. Having gotten to know both students from FMU and also other program participants (from Columbia University and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital), I had a wonderful first night.
The next morning, having been woken up by the 4.0 magnitude earthquake at 5:30am, we were bright and ready to meet the leaders of the program—Dr. Kumagai, Ns. Yoshida, and Ns. Yasui—and to officially begin the weeklong program.
The first two days were spent learning about the basics of radiation (including radiation measurement), the communication of radiation to Fukushima residents, the history of radiation accidents, and details of the Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami disaster in a small lecture setting.
Dr. Kumagai began by elaborating on the mental health problems and anxiety felt among the evacuees. Although the immediate affects of the Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami disaster (such as footages of the tsunami damage or of the nuclear power plant situation) were shown via news channels, the topic of evacuees and the problems they faced were rarely shown or talked about in the United States. Thus, the information given to us on this topic during this time was very valuable, and gave me an insight into the damage inflicted upon the Japanese citizens’ general well-being. For example, I was shocked to learn that radiation anxiety accounted for 10% of all problems (physical and mental) addressed by the evacuees. This was partially due to the lack of basic knowledge of radiation. Furthermore, there existed friction between citizens and evacuees. Specifically, factors such as the monetary compensation (1000USD/person/month) given to radiation disaster evacuees and the lack of social consensus among the evacuees and citizens caused conflict, and thus, in some cases, evacuees were harassed by the citizens. Such problems often tend to be in the shadow of other, more evident, problems. And by learning about them, we, as Nishimiya Fellows were able to gain a comprehensive understanding of the disaster.
During our lunch breaks between the informative lectures, we were generously given bento boxes made by a group of evacuees. The bentos were low-sodium, low-calorie, and were delicious.
In addition to the lectures, we had the precious opportunity of participating in a simulation and wearing radiation protection gear. As we entered the radiation decontamination room, we were faced with the task of decontaminating a patient using what we had learned so far. Wearing head to toe protection, we participated in this “real” situation, and gained hands on experience with treating radiation. In doing so, we went one step forward with the information we had learned: the foundation of basic knowledge guided us to make accurate decisions during the activity.
The third day was filled with group work activities that supplied our growing knowledge on the topic of radiation and the Tohoku disaster. Ns. Yasui led us through a mapping activity: we were initially given the task of writing any problems that we predicted occured after the disaster (both short-term and long-term) individually, then we came together, organized, and mapped out a visual chart of problems shown below.
Additionally, recently a group of Fukushima Medical University students had participated in the same activity. There were a couple striking differences between the two maps: Our map emphasized psychological and psychosocial problems, while their map focused on direct problems due to the fact that they had personally experienced the Tohoku disaster.
As the day progressed, we participated in a variety of activities: measuring the air radiation dose rate and surface level contamination, visiting the emergency helicopter and helicopter pad, walking around campus to see air dose rates, and engaging in an evacuation shelter planning activity.
The following two days were very different from the first few days: Dr. Kumagai, Ns. Yoshida, and Ns. Yasui drove us to Kawamata town located in Date district of Fukushima Prefecture (about a 40 minute drive from Fukushima station), where we participated in a health clinic at the community center. After getting a tour of the clinic and buses with medical testing equipment, we had the unique opportunity of interacting with the citizens in the waiting room. Initially, many citizens were very quiet, and answered our questions politely. However, after about 20 minutes, the citizens opened up and spoke with enthusiasm and happiness. Smiles and laughter filled our conversation circle. The majority of residents that we spoke to had never left Kawamata town, and furthermore, some had never seen or met a foreigner. The residents even gave us many recommendations (ranging from the Shamo chicken to famous Kawamata candy). The time spent at the clinic was memorable and was one of the many highlights of this program.
Before traveling to the tsunami damaged area of Fukushima, we stopped by a cozy restaurant and had a tasty meal of Shamo-don, a bowl of shamo chicken and egg over rice.
After driving about half and hour from Kawamata town, we passed through Iitate Village and viewed soil decontamination, Minamisoma city, and Namie village. While passing through Minamisoma village, we saw abandoned houses and closed off businesses. It was hard to believe that even after three years, residents were still not allowed to stay overnight, and as a result the village had become a ghost town. At our destination, the coastal region of Namie village, we saw homes destroyed by the tsunami and empty land where a fishing town once existed. The directly damaged area was eerily calm and quiet except for the sound of the ocean.
Standing there, right next to a damaged home, was an experience I will never forget. My heart goes out to those who used to live there and suffered this tragic disaster.
The rest of the program was filled with exciting activities: a wonderful tour of FMU and its surrounding farms led by Dr. Kenneth Nollet of FMU, a fun dinner with many students from FMU, and a volcano climbing excursion with Dr. Kumagai, Mr. Yoshida, and Mr. Yasui preceded by a fresh soba noodle lunch.
At the end of the weeklong program, I felt as though I had already been in Fukushima for a month, and I definitely did not want to leave. The week was filled with memorable experiences that I got to share with other wonderful participants—David, Phoebe, Miyuki, and Billy. Most significantly, the generosity of all the individuals we met through the program and at Fukushima was in one word, amazing. And I am forever grateful for having gotten this experience.
I would especially like to thank Nishimiya Fellows Program, Dr. Kumagai, Mr. Yoshida, Mr. Yasui, Shohei (Andy), and Dr. Nollet of FMU, Consortium for Japan Relief (CJR) at Columbia, Japanese Medical Support Network (JAMSnet), Japanese Medical Society of America (JMSA), Honjo-JMSA Scholarship Program, Nishioka Charitable Foundation, Education Center for Disaster Medicine at Fukushima Medical University (FMU) and The Rockefeller Group for this truly valuable opportunity.
And thank you, Fukushima, for welcoming me with open arms.
Millie Nishikawa is a second year pre-medical undergraduate student earning a Bachelor’s degree in Neuroscience and Behavior at Columbia University. Having researched the March 11th Great East Japan Earthquake in Tokyo last summer, she is looking forward to gaining an even deeper understanding of the disaster by visiting Fukushima to learn about disaster medicine and to contribute to relief efforts. As an aspiring physician, she is very excited to be a part of this program, and hopes to share her experience with a greater audience.