Letter from Japan — From the March 2015 issue

Invisible and Insidious

Living at the edge of Fukushima’s nuclear disaster

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For the past three years my dosimeter had sat silently on a narrow shelf just inside the door of a house in Tokyo, upticking its final digit every twenty-four hours by one or two, the increase never failing — for radiation is the ruthless companion of time. Wherever we are, radiation finds and damages us, at best imperceptibly. During those three years, my American neighbors had lost sight of the accident at Fukushima. In March 2011, a tsunami had killed hundreds, or thousands; yes, they remembered that. Several also recollected the earthquake that caused it, but as for the hydrogen explosion and containment breach at Nuclear Plant No. 1, that must have been fixed by now — for its effluents no longer shone forth from our national news. Meanwhile, my dosimeter increased its figure, one or two digits per day, more or less as it would have in San Francisco — well, a trifle more, actually. And in Tokyo, as in San Francisco, people went about their business, except on Friday nights, when the stretch between the Kasumigaseki and Kokkai-Gijido-mae subway stations — half a dozen blocks of sidewalk, which commenced at an antinuclear tent that had already been on this spot for more than 900 days and ended at the prime minister’s lair — became a dim and feeble carnival of pamphleteers and Fukushima refugees peddling handicrafts.

“Iwaki-shi, Fukushima, 2011,” by Katsumi Omori, from the series Everything Happens for the First Time © The artist. Courtesy MEM, Tokyo

“Iwaki-shi, Fukushima, 2011,” by Katsumi Omori, from the series Everything Happens for the First Time © The artist. Courtesy MEM, Tokyo

One Friday evening, the refugees’ half of the sidewalk was demarcated by police barriers, and a line of officers slouched at ease in the street, some with yellow bullhorns hanging from their necks. At the very end of the street, where the National Diet glowed white and strange behind other buildings, a policeman set up a microphone, then deployed a small video camera in the direction of the muscular young people in drums against fascists jackets who now, at six-thirty sharp, began chanting: “We don’t need nuclear energy! Stop nuclear power plants! Stop them, stop them, stop them! No restart! No restart!” The police assumed a stiffer stance; the drumming and chanting were almost uncomfortably loud. Commuters hurried past along the open space between the police and the protesters, staring straight ahead, covering their ears. Finally, a fellow in a shabby sweater appeared, and murmured along with the chants as he rounded the corner. He was the only one who seemed to sympathize; few others reacted at all.

But now the drummers were banging away as if for their very lives, swaying like dancers, raising clenched fists, looking endlessly determined. I was astounded to see that listless scattering of the half-seen become a close-packed, disciplined crowd. There must have been 300 or more. They chanted and raised their hand-lettered placards. It was the last night of February 2014. Perhaps after another three years of Fridays they will still be congregating to express their dissent, which after what happened at Plant No. 1 must be considered pure sanity itself. All the same, they were hurried past, overlooked, and left to chant in darkness while my dosimeter accrued another digit. Another uptick, another gray hair — so what? With radiation, as with time, from moment to moment there may indeed be nothing to worry about.

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’s most recent book is Last Stories and Other Stories (Viking). His last article for Harper’s Magazine, “Life as a Terrorist,” appeared in the September 2013 issue.

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