How I Realized the Importance of Being in Touch With Sunlight, Nature and the Changing Seasons After the Nuclear Disaster

Fukushima Today

Written by a Mother of three (former evacuee who has since returned to Fukushima)

At the time of the disaster, I was living in Fukushima with my two daughters, age three years and six months, and my husband. In May 2011, we evacuated voluntarily to Yuzawa Town, Niigata Prefecture for three months, after which we lived in Yamagata City, Yamagata Prefecture for four and a half years. During that time, I gave birth to a son, and five years passed since we returned to Fukushima.

In the days following the disaster, I stood in line outside several times to buy food and other necessities. I left my three-year-old daughter with her grandfather, but my six-month-old daughter cried so much that I chose to bring her with me in a baby sling. I regret this very much. I should have left her with her grandfather despite how much she cried or whined.

I am not very good at gathering information, and even after the explosion of the nuclear power plant, I believed what was being said on TV. I was worried about radiation, but I hoped the situation wasn’t that bad, which may have caused me to be biased in some ways.

I wished my family could evacuate, and I wanted someone to push me towards taking action, so I scoured the newspapers and TV for information and stories of evacuation. However, I didn’t have confidence in my ability to raise my children on my own. I was aware that if things exceeded my capacity, I would become emotionally unstable, which was one of the reasons I was afraid to take action.

For two months from March to April, we lived without opening any windows and without going outside except when necessary. Even though the weather outside was nice, we could not open the windows, or feel the breeze, or hang our laundry outside, or play outside, or feel safe drinking water and eating food. It was an extremely difficult time.

At the end of April, one of my friends told me about a voluntary evacuation program in Yuzawa Town, Niigata Prefecture, and I decided to evacuate.

Life as an Evacuee

What was particularly difficult was the health problems my children experienced. The day after we moved to Yamagata, my younger daughter had a high fever and I had to look for a pediatrician that I could take her to on my phone. There was also the time when my eldest son was injured in the evening, and I took him to the emergency room. That night when we returned home, my younger daughter started to have diarrhea and vomiting due to gastroenteritis. These two incidents were extremely distressing for us, and I remember crying.

But we were happy to be able to spend time outside, and I have many fond memories. The hard times were so distressing that I don’t remember much of them.

During our time as evacuees, we tried to play outside and get in touch with nature as much as possible. In the first year in particular, probably from being deprived of the outdoors in Fukushima, it was often the case that the only people playing in the park in extremely cold weather were families from Fukushima.

We were only able to see my husband once or twice a month, and I was very worried about the impact that being the only adult in daily contact with my children would have on them. I tried to enjoy our new lifestyle, reminding myself that being away from my hometown was a common occurrence for people who were transferred for work, and that many parents raised children alone when their partners were transferred to a different area and they chose not to move with them. Looking back, I think I was desperate to do my best and it would have been too painful to admit that I was having a hard time.

We were able to continue our evacuation because of the support from the local government and volunteers, as well as from my husband and both of our parents, who recognized and supported my decision. I am truly grateful.

Returning to Fukushima

Five years after the disaster, I decided to return to Fukushima at the end of my maternity leave. I had the radiation levels measured along my eldest daughter’s route to school and confirmed with my children which areas to avoid. To prevent radiation exposure, I paid attention to the origin of foods I purchased, avoided hanging laundry outside on windy days, and went on recreational trips as much as possible, especially in the early days of returning to Fukushima.

My younger daughter and son were enrolled in a daycare center called “Aozora Hoiku Takenoko.” “Takenoko” is a nursery school where my children would be able to spend as much time outside as possible, and we traveled one hour each way to Yonezawa City in the neighboring prefecture to attend this daycare center. The fact that my children were able to spend their days playing to their heart’s content outside without having to worry about exposure to radiation gave me a sense of relief, as every day spent in Fukushima was nerve-wracking for me.

There were many parents there who shared the desire to be in touch with nature, to feed their children healthy foods, and to avoid unnecessary exposure to radiation. At the monthly parent-teacher meetings we could talk about our concerns about life in Fukushima, purchase food in Yonezawa, and I was able to spend time soaking in nature as well. I also met many people that I know will be life-long friends.

While “Takenoko” was a huge help for us in many ways, in Fukushima, there were very few places where people share the same values and could talk openly about radiation. Recreational retreats were a way for us to get away from low-dose radiation exposure for a while, as well as give us a sense of security.

The Poka Poka Project organized by FoE Japan is a welcoming retreat where everyone is accepted with the mottos “never tell a child to be quiet” and “explain instead of scold”. At the parents’ evening gatherings, we were able to share information and vent about our daily concerns and frustrations (only if we wanted to), which was a great relief to us.

The Importance of Getting in Touch With Nature Through Retreats (at the Fukushima Poka Poka Project)

The disaster has made me realize how important it is to feel the wind, to soak up the sun, to touch soil, and to enjoy the changing of the seasons through food. I learned that we are all rooted in nature. But now, I cannot help but wonder if the soil and the wind contain anything that could be harmful to us. It is no longer possible for me to truly love and trust this land and nature, which is extremely painful and hard.

However, words cannot express how grateful I am for the many people I have met and the kindness extended to me as a result of the earthquake. I would like to show my gratitude by giving back.

Ten Years After the Earthquake

Since my son graduated from “Takenoko” last year, my children have been playing outside less and I lost a safe place where I could talk to people. I have never wanted to go on a retreat as much as I did last year. However, the Novel Coronavirus pandemic made it impossible to go on a retreat. I also fear that the memory of the disaster will rapidly fade away after the 10-year anniversary. Radioactive materials may not be visible, but they are still there. I sincerely hope that retreats will still continue to be held in the future.

In the midst of the pandemic, our economy was prioritized above all, taking away our children’s right to learn and the opportunity to learn social skills through play and interaction with friends. I am torn between resentment and resignation. I cannot afford to lose my job for the sake of my family, but I worry for my family members with pre-existing conditions who will be affected greatly if they were to be infected.

I am reminded of ten years ago. Just as I was worried about the physical and mental growth of children who were not in touch with nature and did not use their five senses because of the disaster, I am worried about the effects the pandemic will have on children. 10 years ago, so many people showed their support to the children of Fukushima, but this time, almost every child on the planet has been affected.

As adults we need to continue to think about what is worth protecting and what needs to be done.

(“Fukushima Today and Japan’s Energy Future 2021”)