The other side of Fukushima: "Radiation? Oh, that."

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By John Sparrow in Fukushima

The old man sits on the crowded floor of the sports hall in Fukushima city and worries. He does little else and, at night, when the hubbub dies down in what is now an evacuation centre, when the coughing around him lessens and he finally drops off to sleep, he worries in his dreams.

Coming from a blighted place swept by an 18-metre tsunami and in the shadow of Japan’s crippled nuclear plant he has reason to. His world has fallen apart.

Tadao, 81, a retired farmer, worries first about his missing wife. Since the morning of 11 March, when he left her at home to make a routine visit to hospital, he hasn’t seen her. When a warning came of the approaching wave he found safety on the hospital’s roof but she is one of almost 15,000 people still missing. Although the death toll climbs higher and higher as the missing are found, this old man cannot accept that she will never return.

He worries about his granddaughter, who occupies the place next to him on the sports hall floor. Will she find a good high school away from their home area? How will she be able to cope away from her friends, in a school where she will be a stranger?

He worries too about the home that is no longer where he left it, picked up and dumped somewhere by an unstoppable tide of debris-strewn water. He worries about the land his family has farmed for generations and which is part of the 23,600 hectares of farmland engulfed by the tsunami in the Tohoku and Kanto regions. The tide removed the topsoil, left debris in its place, as well as sea salt that will seriously damage the farmers’ crops for a considerable time to come.

And radiation leaks from the nuclear plant? Does that worry him as well? He looks up, bemused. “What? Oh that. Mmm.”

Farming has ceased in his area until soil tests have been carried out, and the fear of radioactivity may affect the sale of what is grown. But the old man hasn’t thought too much about that yet. He has more important things on his mind.

A few metres away, farmer Shohei Matsumoto and his Filipino wife Mary have thought about radiation. It is why they are here. The tsunami did not reach their village of Katsuraomura, but it is within the outer circle of the exclusion zone set up around the nuclear plant.

Within 20 kilometres of the troubled reactors all but a few who refused to budge have been evacuated. But people living between 20 and 30 kilometres away had an option: stay if you will, the government said, but if you do stay, stay indoors. The Matsumotos chose to leave. They took the advice of the local mayor to evacuate, along with most of their fellow villagers.

Now they worry how long it will be before they can go home. Their house is still standing, their land is intact and the rice planting season is approaching. If they are to make the next rice harvest, farmers must start to prepare seedlings soon, but soil tests must first be completed.

Mary Matsumoto says, “We just want to go back. I miss it so much.” Her husband says calmly, “We will… when the government tells us it is safe.”

Like the Matsumotos, most of the 1,200 people camped out in this hall of a city sports park are from the exclusion zone’s outer circle, with maybe 20 per cent from the inner one. They include those from Minamisoma city, 25 kilometres from the power plant, which saw 50,000 of its 75,000 inhabitants flee within two weeks of the tsunami and the magnitude-9 earthquake that caused it.

How long they will stay depends on many factors; when asked to hazard a guess, Akira Watanabe, director of the park, will only say, “Until they are gone.” The numbers may even increase, he thinks, because many other evacuation centres are located in schools, and schools re-open in April after Japan’s spring break. “If other centres close, the people may come here,” he says.

Growing distress In the meantime, Tadao will continue to worry, and he will not be alone. Japanese Red Cross Society medical teams running centre clinics, and mobile units serving smaller and more remote ones, report growing distress among the displaced, particularly among the elderly. This is just one more reason why the Red Cross continues to strengthen psychosocial support operations.

On their rounds through centres, staff are encountering more and more troubled people – people facing loss, fear and insecurity, even some left distraught by discrimination. If you come from deep within the exclusion zone, you can find yourself branded untouchable, turned down by landlords when you seek to rent an apartment, even shunned by hairdressers, because they wrongly, absurdly, fear you carry radiation.

But more often than not it is human loss that causes trauma. Red Cross nurse Noriko Maezawa tells of an 80-year-old woman she saw standing alone in a corner, staring at her. “She looked as if she wanted to talk to someone so I went up to her and said, ‘How are you feeling, mother? Are you well?’”

She said she was. Then there was a pause and she added, “But I found my cousin’s body yesterday. It had lain there all that time. It was black. If it hadn’t been for a birthmark I wouldn’t have recognized him…”

Such stories are commonplace in the centres, stories of mental pain and of unexpressed anguish because here, in the open of a sports hall’s crowded floor, on a thousand little territories staked out with Red Cross blankets and bundles of all that people still possess, there is no room for public grief, no time perhaps either, to consider much beyond tomorrow.

There, say the Red Cross medical teams, lies a long-term challenge. The wounds you cannot see take the longest time to heal.