If it wasn’t for a metallic taste and strange, powdery sensation on her skin, Sato Sachiko could have almost believed nothing changed in “beautiful Fukushima” after March 11.

The vegetable farmer and slow-food guru, who went from self-sufficient to homeless over night, saw the same azure skies — famously described by 19th century Japanese poet Kotaro Takamura as Japan’s “True Sky”.

“The view in Fukushima remained the same; the mountains, the coast, and the many different types of trees and flowers which transform with Japan’s distinct seasons. And of course, the clear, blue sky, or Honto-no-Sora, in the words of Takamura.”

As a schoolgirl, Sachiko was moved by the poet’s depictions of nature in Japan’s thriving food bowl.

“Living here, with such beauty all around, it was easy to love nature and feel close to it,” says the 53-year-old, who has spent her adult life honing and teaching others the skills of traditional Japanese food preparation and organic farming in Kawamata — now part of the voluntary evacuation zone around the wrecked nuclear plant. In these familiar surroundings, the shock of losing her farm to 6000 becquerels per kilogram of Cesium was all the more surreal.

“There was no visible sign of radiation. But I knew there was nuclear fallout, because I could taste it, and I could feel it. Until June, every time I returned home to feed my cat, I had that metallic taste again and sometimes I had a strange sensation on my skin like a very fine powder.”

Similar descriptions have surfaced in a survey of the local population by NGO Green Action Kyoto, which along with a local newspaper in Koriyama City, also reported clusters of children with nose-bleeding and diarrhoea.

Meanwhile, one in three Fukushima children in a survey of 3000 developed thyroid lumps last year — possibly due to the huge releases of Iodine131, which attracts to young thyroids. The government and Japan’s mainstream medical fraternity deemed the majority of these too small to warrant future monitoring.

While Iodine has a short half-life, cancer-linked Cesium lingers in the environment and the food cycle for generations. Provided there is no further contamination, it will take seven years before the cesium level in Sachiko’s property is deemed “safe” for growing food, but she has no plans to return.

“Even when it gets to what the government deems ‘safe’ levels of radiation, it will never be the same,” she says. “If only 1% of the population develops illness or cancer from exposure to internal radiation through the food, that’s a 100% impact on that person. You wouldn’t accept that risk for your own child, so why accept it for others?”

Levels of Cesium exceeding the government’s 500becquerels-per-kilogram limit have been found in rice, beef, baby products,  vegetables and fish. While shipment is stopped in many cases, some of this food has reached restaurants and supermarkets even as far as Okinawa. Packaging is not always clear, making it difficult to trace the origin of food products.

“The most important thing right now is making sure people, especially young kids, can get access to radiation-free food,” says Sachiko.

After evacuating to a temporary rental property in the neighbouring prefecture of Yamagata, Sachiko set up Fukushima Network, a non-profit café and vegetable market in Fukushima City sourcing food from South and West Japan.

“Parents are extremely worried about their children and food,” she says. “We try to help by providing food products that have been screened for radiation, and informing people about contamination in areas that would have been evacuated under post-Chernobyl limits.”

But not everyone wants to know about radiation. “More and more people are starting to demand information,” she says. “But there is still division in the community on the level of risk, and some people feel guilty if they don’t support the local economy.

“In my family people reacted differently to the crisis and disagreed, with some quite angry about the level of panic around radiation. But I cannot hide this information — I must share it so that individuals can make their own informed decisions.”

It is testament to the sense of unity among Japanese that people often speak about the “guilt” they feel for friends, family and even strangers affected by the nuclear disaster.

“I feel bad because even though my husband and I could afford to evacuate, we can’t help all our family and neighbours do the same, so many remain in contaminated areas in the voluntary evacuation zone,” says Sachiko.

It is unclear when any of them will be compensated by Tokyo Electric Power Company, which is slowly dealing out ¥1.7 trillion in government bail-out compensation funds. “It’s a long and convoluted process and we’re not yet sure what we’re eligible for and how much we would get,” Sachiko says.

Sachiko and her husband are now looking for land in northern Honshu, where they plan to retire and again live off their own produce.

“We’ll manage OK,” she says. “I’m more worried about others who were hit harder by the loss of income. These financial circumstances exacerbate the stress of being physically separated from what was a very bonded community.”

As though trying to shoulder the national burden, some people even choose Tohoku products to support farmers. A woman in her mid-20s, who evacuated with her sister and niece to Okinawa, looks saddened when asked about food products in her former home town of Okuma. It reminds her of Fukushima’s former farming glory.

“I rarely went to the supermarket because people were so generous with their produce,” she says. “We didn’t have a farm, but our neighbours gave us rice and vegetables and lots of seafood. It was a very happy, thriving community.”

Like Sachiko and many Fukushima residents, this evacuee longs for the “simple things” she used to enjoy in an abundant environment. “When you are suddenly no longer able to carry out the basic human practice of growing food, that is a profound loss,” adds Sachiko.

She fears the international community will lose interest in the ongoing crisis, which she says is not Japan’s problem alone. Five out of six reactors at TEPCO’s Daiichi plant contained Australian uranium.

“It is no co-incidence that Aboriginal landowners previously warned of the dangers of exporting uranium to other countries. It is not just our economies that are linked, but our environments too,” she says, referring to a letter of solidarity from the Mirrar — the traditional owners of land around Ranger and Jabiluka uranium mines — to the people of Fukushima. “The damage to livelihoods here is immeasurable, let alone potential health impacts.”

At an anniversary concert for evacuees in Okinawa, Japan’s largest district without any nuclear plants, the anti-nuclear message echoed Sachiko. With some local governments here considering accepting radioactive tsunami debris, people are stressed about the dispersal of March 11’s impact.

Dressed in brightly sequined body suits, one satirical band got the crowd chanting: “We don’t want nuclear, we just want to drink milk.”

Peter Fray

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