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 me, Tomioka, whose pre-accident population had been between 10,000 and 16,000, resembled the Iraqi city of Kirkuk, in that each time I returned to it I felt less safe, because each time I knew more and saw more.

There was plentiful vehicle traffic, to be sure — TEPCO workers, mostly, who queued up at the police checkpoint where the exclusion zone began, or dug with shovels, paused, then dragged picks and rakes across gravel, decontaminating. But the rest was quiet enough. I often tasted metal in my mouth there; I don’t know why. The first time I visited, days before my excursion with Kanari, I walked past closed garages, a shuttered sliding door, forsaken shells of buildings. On one trip, I entered a garment store where some of the forms lay cast down. The rest were still standing, eerie silhouettes of headless, legless, armless women; a vacuum cleaner had fallen over on its side. All around were dead weeds, tall and half-frozen, outspreading lace-tipped finger stalks, projecting complex and lovely shadows on the white walls of silent houses whose curtains were neatly drawn. Grass rose up on the sides of the buildings, and golden weeds bent before crumpled blinds. Behind a fence, metal banged on metal. The banging went on and on like a telegraph.

LiekoShiga-Harpers-150360__ArtistName-Harpers-1503-1

“Rasen Kaigan (Spiral Shore) 45,” by Lieko Shiga, from her series Rasen Kaigan (Spiral Shore), produced in the Miyagi prefecture before and after the earthquake and tsunami. Shiga’s work will be on view next month as part of In the Wake: Japanese Photographers Respond to 3/11, at the Museum of Fine Arts, in Boston. Photograph © The artist, courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

In the city center, the streetlights glowed even in the middle of the day, probably to deter theft, of which there was, apparently, a great deal. Over the whole of Tomioka rang an amplified recorded voice, evidently a young woman’s, but distorted and metallic. She reminded the workers not to spread radioactivity; they should dispose of their protective gear at the screening place on their way home. She said, “If you incinerate something or use incense, be careful not to start a fire,” and she warned the former inhabitants, crackling, “For temporary housing people, make sure to kill the breaker before you leave, and lock the door to prevent thieves.”

The forbidden zone’s current boundary was marked by large, narrow signboards, which said, as rendered in my interpreter’s rather beautiful English:

transportation is now being restricted.

ahead of here is

a “difficult to return zone.”

so road closed.

The signs were flanked by traffic cones, with knee-high metal railings behind, which were low enough that a scofflaw such as I might step over them to enter the forbidden zone. That is what I did, I confess, but only for a moment or two on that occasion.

On that first visit I thought that Tomioka appeared only a little shabby — not really, as my interpreter opined, abandoned; weeds could have done much worse in three years. But after an hour I checked the dosimeter and saw that it had already registered another microsievert. Within a single hour I had received three times as much radiation as I had in the previous twenty-four hours. The dosage in Tomioka, in other words, was potentially seventy-two times greater than in Iwaki.

I cannot tell you all that I wish to about the quiet horror of the place, much less of its sadness, but I ask you to imagine yourself looking at a certain weed-grown wooden residence with unswept snow on the front porch as the interpreter points and says: “This must have been a very nice house. The owner must have been very proud.”

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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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