In the fishing town of Iwaki, uni is sold in the local market steamed, on the clamshell. Starting each May, free divers wearing weight belts and flippers gather urchin from a small cove and haul the spiny globes to shore in woven baskets. For years, tourists have been coming to this port in Fukushima prefecture to taste Iwaki’s uni, and a small group of fishermen have lived year-round on what they make in a summer from the delicacy.
But this year, a week before the season should begin, the Fukushima government has asked that uni and abalone fishing be put on hold. The Iwaki name is no longer a selling point; it’s a liability. On a house perched above town, Shoichi Manome’s baskets and diving gear sit waiting in the driveway. The head of the local fisherman’s association, Manome has been asking the prefectural government to test the waters off Iwaki, over 21 miles south of the damaged Fukushima power plant, to see if the levels of radioactive material are, indeed, too high to fish. “If I say I’m not nervous to go in the water right now, that would be lie,” Manome says. But, he stresses, “We don’t know the numbers yet.”
Manome should have been among the few lucky fishermen in northeast Japan who could continue to make a living after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. He did not have a boat to get swept inland by the waves. He does not need to keep his catch on ice for days in a port where the ice factory has been washed away. But like all fisherman, he does need to be able to guarantee that what he’s selling is safe. Since news came out that the power plant was leaking — and subsequently dumping — radioactive water into the sea, neither Manome nor any of the other fishermen working in this region can do that. On Thursday, Tokyo Power and Electric Company (TEPCO) announced that a six-day leak early this month contained 5000 terabecquerels of radioactive material, including mostly iodine-131 and much lesser amounts of longer-lasting cesium-134 and cesium-137, according to Kyodo News. Still, that’s 20,000 times over the amount of seawater contamination the plant is allowed. The plant is also thought to have released somewhere between 370,000 and 630,000 terabecquerels into the atmosphere, which have spread into communities far beyond the government’s 12-mile evacuation radius.
The problem for Fukushima’s fishermen and farmers – and indeed, for many more people both inside and outside Japan – is that little is known what these contamination levels mean for food safety. In the past six weeks, several countries have put import bans on Japanese produce and foreign demand for Japanese seafood has sunk to an all-time low. Several Japanese agricultural products, including samples of one small fish, broccoli, spinach, and milk, have been found to have low levels of radiation contamination. Yet the government, still embroiled in how to shut down the plant and now preoccupied with keeping people out of the evacuation zone, has been slow to do tests to get a more complete picture of the problem. The Iwaki fisherman’s association has been told by the prefectural government in Fukushima City not to test the water themselves because it might be dangerous to enter, yet has not sent anyone else to do the job. Now Manome doesn’t know whether the testing will get done in time to get any profit at all out of this season. “I think the prefecture is afraid to find out that there are high [radiation] levels,” he says.
Clearly, both the local and central governments are aware they have to start doing some damage control on the Fukushima brand name. “People don’t want to buy things from Fukushima,” says one official with the city government who asked not to be named. For fishermen and farmers, the stigma of nuclear contamination is literally becoming a matter of life and death; on March 24th, a 64-year-old organic farmer in Sukagawa City hung himself, overwhelmed that his life’s work was suddenly lost. On Thursday morning, the prefecture announced it would start testing all seafood products that are landed in Fukushima. Soil testing has been taking place around the region; in parts where the contamination was found to be too high, such as Minami Soma, some planting has been banned. “The city tested the soil and everything was fine,” says Yoshiharu Tanno, an office worker who spends the weekends farming the 1.3 hectares of rice paddy he inherited from his family. “But because of the bad reputation we’ve got, we can’t do anything.”
Other parts of Japan that have had nuclear scares have recovered. In Tokai, after a nuclear accident at a uranium reprocessing facility killed two workers in 1999, fish sales dropped and sweet potato farmers in the area had a hard time selling their crops, but both of those markets eventually got back on their feet. What’s harder to gauge is the effect that a more prolonged period of low sales might have on industries in which farmers are elderly and struggling to make ends meet, particularly in communities where they are facing temporary evacuation. In Iitatemura, a farming village that has been informed it may have to evacuate due to high radiation levels, the local farming cooperative has been trying to help people figure out a plan. “People have to pay back their loans on land and machinery,” says Shoji Masatada, the manager of the local branch of Japan Agricultural Cooperatives (JA). “They don’t know how they’re going to do that.” Like Hitomi, more and more farmers in the region have already given up trying to make a living off it. “The price of rice is already so low,” Tanno says. “To think that’s it’s going to be lower kills me.”
In places like Iitatemura, where high-levels of long-lasting cesium have been found, the losses will be particularly far-reaching. After the nuclear power plant is shut down and isolated – a process that itself will not be complete before the end of the year at the earliest – the government will begin the long and complicated process of decontaminating the region, including the soil. “If they can come back, they don’t know how long it will take to get things back to normal. The air, land and water are all contaminated,” says Masatada.
By a road leading out of Iwaki, two elderly women sit on the ground in a verdant vegetable garden, eating dried fruit and enjoying one of the first warm days of spring. Behind them, a row of cherry trees is in bloom; in front of them, well-groomed rows of leafy napa cabbage and daikon soak up the sun. “We’re throwing everything away. We don’t even eat it ourselves.” says one of the women, a farmer wearing a green bonnet who declines to give her name but gamely admits she clocks in somewhere over 70. She has not planted her rice paddies either, which she normally sells to the local farming cooperative after the harvest in September. When asked if she is worried about what’s happening at the nuclear power plant, she laughs loudly. “I don’t matter. I’m old…We’ll find some other job, maybe in a store.” Her friend, sitting next to her, is a little blasé. “If only it was just the earthquake, none of this would have happened,” she laments. She glances back over her shoulder at the row of pink blooms behind her. “I feel sorry for the cherry trees. No one’s looking at them.”
— With reporting by Tai Dirkse