“Don’t go to Fukushima.”
This was the message I received from many people after being accepted into the 2014 Nishimiya Fellows Program. Friends, family, and even strangers. “Don’t go to Fukushima.” The stigma against Japan’s third largest prefecture was so powerful that it stretched over the entire planet. To be honest, this helped motivate me a bit more. As a student, I have been taught to be a skeptic, to ask questions, and to not necessarily accept everything as fact just because it is a popular opinion. I was skeptical about this nuclear wasteland called Fukushima. I know a few of the other Columbia students who took part in this program over the past two years and they did not come back with extra limbs, but instead stories about a trip they loved. Last November, there was a student panel event where Kenny Nakazawa and some other students who have been to Fukushima spoke about its current state. “Much of Fukushima has the same amount of radiation as New York City”. This was a quote by one of the students speaking that day. How could this be true? This goes against everything most of the world believes now. It was with these two conflicting thoughts in mind that I left New York City for Narita, on the other side of the world.
Narita International Airport
The flight was approximately 14 hours long (not including the layover in Toronto). During that time, I sat next to a man who called himself “Momo”. Momo was an insurance salesman visiting NYC for a convention. We spent a lot of time talking and when I mentioned that I was heading to Fukushima his playful demeanor changed to one more stern. “You don’t want to go there, no good there”, he told me. It seems like everyone, including Momo, did not want me to continue my trip.
I arrived at Narita, took the Narita Express train to Tokyo Station, and hopped on the Shinkansen up to Fukushima. During this time, I caught my first, jet-lagged glimpse of Japan. It was beautiful, green, and rainy (par for this time of year).
First view of Japan from the ground
Other than the pouring rain, and some difficulty finding the hotel, the journey was smooth. My arrival was a few days before the program started so I had a great opportunity to explore Fukushima City by myself. Over the course of those few days by myself I noticed the people were not living as I imagined people would be in a heavily irradiated area. There were no radiation suits, no Geiger counters. Instead the city was full of happy, wonderful people. Even though my Japanese was pretty rough, I had a fantastic time making new friends, trying new foods, seeing new sights. I even had a chance to play music at a local guitar shop.
Yu and Andy
Finally, it is Monday and time for the program to officially begin. Around 5:15am that morning, we were awoken abruptly with an earthquake. A very effective alarm clock. Soon after we hopped on the city bus and headed towards Fukushima Medical University for our day’s classes. This year’s Nishimiya Fellows Program consisted of three Columbia students: myself, Miyuki, and Millie. However, we were also joined by two medical students from Mt. Sinai as well: David and Phoebe. One thing I was very impressed by was the diversity in everyone’s backgrounds and interests. For example, whereas I am clinical psychology student focusing on post-disaster resilience, Miyuki is a PhD student studying nutrition, looking at how disasters impact health in that regard. This diversity would prove to be beneficial over the course of the program.
Monday’s lectures consisted of an introduction by our professor, Dr. Kumagai, as well as a detailed history of the disaster of Fukushima, 3.5 hours of radiation education, and a hands-on usage of radiation detection equipment. It was during the lecture on radiation education that our eyes really started to open up about radiation in Fukushima. We learned about the science behind radiation (becquerels, grays, sieverts, etc), the amount needed to cause harm, and where that amount can be found. Did you know that one chest CT scan causes a radiation dose of around 6.9mSv, whereas the average hourly dose in Fukushima is .19uSv? I think we were all surprised with what we were learning as it went against what we were told before arriving. This is exactly why we signed up for the program though, so from day 1 it was already incredibly educational.
Dr. Kumagai teaching us about the Fukushima Power Plant
Learning how to detect radiation
Other than Dr.Kumagai, we had two teacher assistants, Nurses Yasui and Yoshida, who helped teach the program. The next day, Dr. Kumagai taught us about food safety and internal radiation exposure while Ns. Yasui taught us about the daily life of the post-disaster evacuees. This section, also touched upon the day before, really stuck out to me. There was a lot concerning the Fukushima evacuee situation that I did not know before this program. I had no idea these evacuees faced as much harassment as they have been. As a student, one of my main interests is looking at communities and understand what about they help or hinder post-disaster resilience. In this case, I would believe that this community vs. community situation would have a very negative impact on the long-term resiliency of Fukushima evacuees, and I hope to research this further in the future.
That Tuesday we also had a chance to practice a hospital decontamination situation. This was a chance for us to take what we learned from the lectures up this point and use it in real life. We suited up, went to the decontamination room, and were given a patient situation and mock patient to use (Ns. Yasui). It was a great experience learning these skills from the same people who actually did this after the Fukushima disaster. We also learned about the various triage procedures used in a post-disaster hospital scenario and the logistics behind coordinating where patients go. Ns. Yasui led a workshop where we learned about health consulting with local citizens. We all took turns talking with mock citizens (our teachers). This skill would later be used with actual citizens later on that week.
Safety first. The students are ready to decontaminate patients.
Dr.Kumagai teaching us about radiation triage.
The next day, Wednesday, was our final day of lectures at Fukushima Medical University. Ns. Yasui led us in another workshop exercise called “problem mapping” where the five of us wrote down on post it notes all of the problems resulting from the Fukushima Disaster, then we connected them all together in, placing similar ones in various themes (i.e. evacuation or fear). What was especially interesting about this for me was when we looked at a problem map constructed by Japanese students a week earlier. While there were definitely some similarities, it was very different. It was fascinating looking at this disaster from the two different perspectives.
Our problem map
The Japanese students’ problem map
The day continued after that with a lecture by Ns. Yoshida on the history of radiation accidents and another workshop by Ns. Yasui where the five of us worked together to plan and manage a evacuation shelter. This was a great way to learn about the logistics and stresses involved in shelter operations and we had a lot of fun solving the various problems.
Preparing the evacuation shelter
The next two days would be very different. Instead of classroom lectures, we headed east through the mountains. Fukushima never ceased to amaze me during my time there. Driving east was absolutely beautiful. As someone living in Manhattan, I loved every second of being in those green mountains. As we traveled, we had two different radiation meters with us to measure the levels around us (which remained unsurprisingly low). Our first stop on both Thursday and Friday was in Kawamata where we went to a community health clinic to talk to local residents. What a terrific experience. The vast majority of these elderly residents have been living in this area for their entire lives. Some have never even left Fukushima and we were the first Caucasians they’ve seen. Using the skills we learned from our health consultation workshop, we began talking to these residents (using the Japanese skills of Millie and Miyuki). We talked about everything; food, America, my beard, David’s height, and, of course, radiation. Some of the locals had no anxiety about the radiation whatsoever. One gentleman told us that he eats mushrooms right out of the ground because he isn’t afraid. Some people had minor anxieties. Maybe they have no problem living there, but they are cautious about which food or water they consume. Then there were also some residents who were very concerned about the radiation. It was valuable to hear the thoughts of all of these individuals.
During that Thursday, we also walked across the parking lot to the City Hall for a break. While there, we met Mr. Kanda, the Superintendent of Kawamata Town Board of Education. We told him what we were doing with the residents and about our program. He then brought us in to meet the mayor of Kawamata, Mr. Michio Furukawa. We drank tea with him in his office and told him our thoughts of Fukushima so far. I told the two of them that it would be very easy to go home and tell people nice things about Fukushima, and the two gentlemen shook my hand. They told us we were tomodachi (friends) of Fukushima, and ambassadors. It was really at this point of the program that I realized it was more important than I originally thought. This was not just about medical lectures. Instead, this was a way for five individuals to go to Fukushima and to learn to look past stigma. This was very important to the people of Fukushima, and it became important to us students as well. During our time there, we all truly felt like friends of the people of Fukushima.
After the clinic, we went to lunch in Kawamata and we were able to try shamo, a special breed of chicken only found there. It was the little experiences like this one, experiences that could only be found in Japan, that helped make the trip unforgettable.
After lunch, we continued east. From Kawamata, we drove through Iitate, currently a ghost town due to the evacuation of its residents. From there we went through Minami-soma and then Namie. These areas were all severely impacted by the Fukushima disaster. Driving towards the Pacific Ocean we saw empty ghost towns with no current residents, many decontamination workers, and devastating tsunami damage. Even three years after the disaster, much of the destruction remains. It was a humbling experience to walk through an area in which so many lost their lives and is now considered to be somewhat of a graveyard.
A house damaged by the 2011 tsunami
More tsunami damage
Looking out over what used to be a residential area
It was clear to us that for many Fukushima residents there are still problems, even 3 years later. There is a large number of evacuees living in temporary housing, not knowing when they will be able to leave, creating sadness, anger, and distrust. Standing at this spot, with our backs to the Pacific Ocean, I knew there was still a lot of work that needed to be done here. It certainly didn’t help that most of the world feared Fukushima too much to contribute in the rebuilding process.
After that, we returned to Fukushima Medical University where we met Dr. Kenneth Nollet, a doctor and professor at FMU, who gave us a fantastic tour of the surrounding area. Rice fields, peach trees, school yards, and residential streets. We got a glimpse of the decontamination process in that area (the removal of trees and grass) and a behind-the-scenes look at the area we’ve been working in. We continued walking a few kilometers until we arrived at our final destination; a local restaurant where a party in our honor was being hosted by some of the FMU medical students. I absolutely loved this. Great people and great food (and drink) in a small, local, family-owned restaurant. The five of us sat in different places and the medical students spent time getting to know us, and us them. I exchanged contact information with many of the medical students and I look forward to continuing communication with them in the future. I can only hope that I get an opportunity to be as good of a host to them as they were to me someday.
Dinner with the doctors and medical students
The next day was the final day of the program. We spoke with residents of Kawamata again for a while and then left for lunch. We stopped for lunch at a rest stop, which sounds questionable, but was probably my favorite meal during my time in Japan. The meal was soba, a type of buckwheat noodles in soup with tempora shrimp and veggies on the side. The owner (and chef) had his station set up at the entrance to the place so that he could greet and say goodbye to everyone personally. That level of respect was another characteristic of Japan I truly admired.
Mr. Hayashi, Owner/Chef
Once we finished lunch, Dr. Kumagai and Ns. Yasui drove us to Mount Azuma-kofuji, a large volcano in Fukushima. As I mentioned before, Fukushima never ceased to amaze me, and the drive up and through the mountains was no exception.
Driving to Mt. Azuma-kofuji
We reached the top
The 2014 Nishimiya Fellows with Dr. Kumagai (left) and Ns. Yasui (right)
Finishing up at the volcano, we headed back to the university to conclude the program. This was very bittersweet for me as I loved my time in Fukushima, but at the same time I was looking forward to visiting Tokyo for the next few days. The three Columbia students received certificates for completing the class and we all (students and teachers) exchanged gifts.
The final meeting of the 2014 Nishimiya Fellows Program
Now that I am back in New York, I know that my work regarding Fukushima is not done, but is only just beginning. I look forward to continue on as a friend of Fukushima, sharing with others my wonderful experiences while at the same time working to reduce the stigma hanging over the prefecture. I can’t speak highly enough about the people I met there; our terrific teachers Kumagai, Yasui, and Yoshida; the medical students; our incredible host Andy; and all of the residents I had the pleasure of meeting. Fukushima is not a desolate, nuclear wasteland, but rather a place full of beauty that is coping with a disaster the world has never seen before. There is plenty of happiness to be found in Fukushima, but that doesn’t mean they can’t use a little help from the rest of the world.
Go to Fukushima.
William Anderson is a second year MA student in the Clinical Psychology program at Columbia University. His main academic interests focus on cross-cultural post-disaster community resilience. He looks forward to using what he has learned from the Nishimiya Fellows Program in his future mental health work.