My Struggle to Revive the Cultural and Natural Heritage of Soma in Fukushima

Rev. Toku-un Tanaka

Rev. Toku-un Tanaka is a Soto Zen priest and the abbot of Chuzen-ji and Dokei-ji located in the town of Minami Soma, just 17 kilometers from the crippled Fukushima #1 nuclear complex. This article is from a public talk he gave at a meeting entitled, “Religious Professionals and Confronting the Problem of Nuclear Energy: Towards Sharing the Suffering of the People in the Regions with Nuclear Power Plants and Living in Interdependence”, held at the Bunkyo Civic Center in Tokyo on January 17, 2012 and sponsored by the Inter Faith Forum for the Review of National Nuclear Policy and the Japan Network of Engaged Buddhists (JNEB).

March 11, 2011

I have been entrusted as the abbot of a temple that is located 17 kilometers from the Fukushima #1 nuclear reactors. On March 11th, the earthquake hit shortly before 3:00 and was followed by the tsunami. I think it was about 4:30 as I was searching around for information through Twitter on my cell phone when I got the information that all power had been lost at the Fukushima nuclear reactors and that the diesel power that they had prepared as a substitute had been washed away by the tsunami. By chance, the year before, I was fortunate to have taken a series of seminars on the structure of nuclear power. Therefore, I knew how a nuclear reactor creates electricity and what is the most dangerous situation for a nuclear reactor. In this way, by chance, I could understand how dangerous it was that the all the power had been lost at the nuclear complex.

I immediately thought, “This is not good”, but when I talked with the people in my area, such as the head of the ward and the old people in the neighborhood, they said, “No, no, there’s no problem with the reactors, absolutely no problem. Don’t worry.” But I could not follow them. I had been taught in the study group I attended the problem of timing when all power is lost at a reactor. So for the time being I decided to keep a tab on the situation until the next morning. If the reactor could regain power by the next morning, I would be able to go home. Until then, I began to evacuate with my child.

When I started to evacuate, it was still very early, around 6:00 pm on the day of the earthquake and tsunami. At that time, no one from our area had thought of evacuating, and there had been no influence of the tsunami on our area. In this way, when we evacuated, there was a real gap in perceptions between my immediate family and the people in the area. My mother stayed behind saying, “I can’t believe there will be an explosion at the reactors.” In this way, my family was torn apart. There was no way to convince them.

Since up to that time I had always regarded nuclear power as suspicious, I joined that study group; and from becoming a student, I could understand. They had prepared a very big room in our area for the study meetings, but only about ten people at most joined. In this empty room, I had the chance to talk with an American man named Mike, a lawyer from America who had been doing various activities on the frontline there. He came to give a talk to our group. There were things from his talk that stuck in my mind, so this is why I was thinking it was not a good situation and decided to evacuate.

Going Back to Fukushima

My family and I evacuated to Fukui Prefecture, just north of Kyoto, where we are still now. Not surprisingly, after March 20th, I began to hear from my parishioners in Fukushima. “Please come back,” they said. This was all in due course, and so I was quite resigned to it. I had already been thinking about when I would get such a request. Still, from the 20th on onward was right in the middle of the rapid flight out of Fukushima. When I got this request, my family said, “Dad, are you really gonna go back?”

I felt it was really no use to think about it too much; because the more I did, the greater the anxiety became. Naturally, I was scared of the fact I was going to be exposed to radiation. I left Fukushima on the 11th, so I knew I hadn’t been exposed to what they call the “ashes of death”. Even still, I thought, “Why am I going back in the middle of this situation? Is it really OK?” I was in emotional conflict, because I am human being too. Even so, I knew that I had to return. So I took the greatest safeguards for myself: paying constant attention to wind direction, I dressed in a parka, put on a mask, and made sure that my skin was not exposed.

So I started making trips to Fukushima, then returning to my family, and then going back again to Fukushima. Gradually, I could develop some balance and little by little find a way to decide by myself what I would allow myself to do. Was I deceiving myself a bit about the prospects of becoming contaminated with radiation? This would be something I thought about after returning to Fukui. Not surprisingly, I stopped talking about such things at the moment I would enter Fukushima. This was also because my extended family kept living there. Gradually, the longer I stayed in Fukushima, the less I would wear a mask and not avoid eating certain food. I knew what was right in my mind, but when you actually go there you can’t do such things. When I would visit with parishioners, they would serve me tea and say, “Reverend, do come by more often!” “Sure,” I said, while in my mind I was thinking, “This water is probably contaminated.” But I’m a Buddhist priest, so I should drink it. I thought I shouldn’t say anything about the things that came from this whole region, so I accepted them, with thanks, with gratitude.

My work has varied due to the seasons, but as I look back now on the past 10 months, I can see that the parishioners from my area have dispersed all over Japan. With the passage of time, there has been the building of quite a number of temporary housing units in Minami Soma in the 30 to 40 kilometer radius from the reactors. It’s natural that people will start getting used to living in the area and that’s good, but it’s surely a mistake to go back home. About 40% of my parishioners are still living outside of the prefecture after evacuating, so it’s hard for me to determine where best to create a base for my work.

I’ve got so much stuff piled into my car, and it feels like I am moving at a snail’s pace. I feel like today wherever I go is where the temple is. One day, every day, wherever I go, the number one thing is learning about people’s misfortune. Amongst my parishioners, there are especially old men and women who had been in the hospital and cannot endure the lifestyle of an evacuee. I have heard of many cases where they had to be moved from one hospital to another through April, May, June, July, August, and the heat of the summer. In this situation, there was about a 50% increase in the number of deaths compared to other years.

When I hear my phone ring, the first thing I say is, “Where are you now?” Once I know where they are, I look at my schedule book and tell them my plan. Then I go see them in my car. Over six months from April through September, I’ve put 60,000 kilometers on my car; that’s 10,000 kilometers a month. But I never noticed when I was doing it. In September, I got together with my family for the first time in two months and sent my car in for maintenance. The guy at the garage said, “You’ve put a lot miles on this thing.” Before the disaster, my car had 150,000 kilometers on it, and I thought to myself, “I wonder how many kilometers are on it now?” When I looked it was 210,000, so I calculated 10,000 kilometers per month, which is about 300 kilometers per day—that surprised me.

All this travel was for going to do memorial services or funerals and such things. This is what I consider spiritual care for the parishioners. Conversations with them revolved around things like, “Do you have any physical problems anywhere?” or “Is there any thing the matter?” Yet every parishioner is totally different. One time, a parishioner said, “I never thought I would see the reverend again.” When such words came from the face of someone I hadn’t seen in a long time, I first began to cry; and then we cried together. When one cries, naturally one’s feeling begins to heal and one’s mind is cleared.

Reflections on Fukushima’s Culture and Nature

Before the disaster, I had very strong relationships with my parishioners. The region of Soma was known as the feudal domain of Soma since the establishment of the feudal domain system with the Tokugawa regime in the early 1600s. From the Kamakura period beginning in the late 12th century up to the abolishment of feudal domains and creation of prefectures in 1871, the communities of Soma have never been moved and have been one continuous domain. There are only three such feudal domains like this in Japan: Soma, the southern domain of Iwate (just north of Fukushima), and Shimazu in Kyushu.

In this way, the Soma “family” is kind of like the emperor’s family. For generations, the region has been tightly held together, especially at my temple. It is the family temple of the Soma clan. The parishioners have taken care of me and put their confidence and trust in a youngster like myself. I have been saying to everyone, “Don’t just take care of me, because it is you members who have helped me grow.” So there is this background of mutually being very assiduous toward each other. When I have a phone conversation with them, I think I really do have to return to Fukushima.

In this way, I began my work 10 months ago. I still go back to Fukui where my family is. In my mind, here at the end of 2011, I think that many people have come to an awareness of this issue. However, the #4 Reactor at the Fukushima facility is still in a precarious situation. My child still asks me, “Dad, are you going to Fukushima again?” As he hands me a mask, he says, “Please make sure to wear it,” and I put it away in my pocket. I would put it on at the start of my trip to Fukushima, either by car or by bullet train. Then after coming back to Fukui after being in Fukushima for a week, I would realize that I had kept the mask on for only two hours the entire time, neglecting to do what I had be told.

Truth be told, when I arrive in Fukushima, driving in my car, I notice how beautiful it is. There is still just incredibly beautiful nature that is unimaginable in urban areas. It is nature that you can no longer find in Western Japan. It still exists in Fukushima, the gateway to Northern Japan. It is a great nature that you cannot escape. There is no place to journey without vegetation. Passing through such great nature in my car, I am overcome with an apologetic feeling, “I’m sorry.” I think this is not the occasion to wear a mask. My heart cries out, while my mind says it’s better to wear a mask.

It would be great if all the children of Fukushima could be quickly evacuated. I think if you all really think about it, the same thought will occur in your mind. When I am not in Fukushima, I think this way. But when I go back to Fukushima, it occurs to me, “I wonder what’s the rate of radioactivity? Has it decreased?” This is how these two selves exist within me. I think it’s some sort of gap between mind and heart. Within this same body, the mind is in one place and the heart in another. It is really just a small gap, but it seems very wide. I am still very caught up in this situation, right in the middle.

followers of Chuzen-ji in Minami-Soma clean temple in October 2011 amidst ongoing radiation

The Role of Religious Professionals in the Crisis

From September, I have gradually slowed down the pace of my work. I thought I needed to take time for myself and to place a little importance on family time. This is especially important after returning home. I had to change my feeling that such time is just as important as the time when I go to Fukushima. So during my time in Fukui, I have been thinking I should spend half the month being with my family. I have also been asked to talk about my work to people in Fukui and in the larger area of Kansai. Since November, a number of times a month when I return to Fukui, I give talks in Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, and also Fukui on the situation in Fukushima and how to overcome the problems there.

What I am thinking about now is how in Fukushima to overcome the differences in religions and denominations among us Buddhist priests, Christian pastors, and Shinto priests. If we could be united as one, we could then go about emphasizing how important life is. I would like to see real earnestness on how to protect our children. Up to now, there has been a lot of superficial talk about this issue. We are now in a serious situation, so it is not the time to be just talking. There is no real discussion with the people of Fukushima unless you are willing to talk straight, because their lifestyle is the lifestyle of those who have been contaminated with radiation. They have lost their jobs, but still they are working, exposed to radiation. In a situation like this, we have to work to overcome everyone’s differences, even though we, of course, all think differently. If you get 10 people together, they will have 10 different opinions.

But this is not the time for talking in such a way. Religious professionals should all overcome their differences and overcome their different ways of thinking to unite to protect the lives of children. We need to all get together to discuss how we can love our home region and how we can restore it. In order to do this, religious professionals should really take some leadership. There is a feeling in these areas amongst the locals of really expecting something from us. In this way, my mission from now on is to dedicate myself this work and to live in Fukushima.


Transcribed by Hanae Inoue and translated by Jonathan Watts with Rev. Jin Sakai

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