A Lone Man’s Resolve in Okuma

On the foothill south of Stricken Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant lies a blooming Sunflower field. A lone man, occasionally with helps of volunteers, comes here to tend the garden. The land surrounds the gorgeous field was his former home where he spent years of his life with his parents, his wife and two beautiful daughters. But all that are the thing of past now. The 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami have wiped out his home, and took away lives of his father, a love of his life and one of his precious daughter, then 6. The nuclear disaster has made him and remainder of his family impossible to return to their former homes.

Norio Kimura, the man who created the sunflower garden to commemorate his daughter, began a quest to find his missing family members soon after the disaster at the town of Okuma in Fukushima Prefecture. But the search and rescue effort was hampered by a nuclear disaster 4 km of his home. All personals in the area at the time had to be evacuated due to the high level of radiation. He was able to retrieve his father and his wife’s bodies six months after the disaster, but there was no trace of his missing daughter. Determined, He embarked multiple trips back to Okuma to find his daughter’s remains after resettled in Nagano Prefecture, about 500km from his former home. But the radiation concern means he was only allowed to enter the town once during the first two years since 2011 and 15 times a year with time limit of 5 hours per visit thereafter. The tireless effort did come in fruition on Dec 9. 2016 when he and volunteers found partial remain. But he vows to continue until he finds every single piece of his daughter’s remains.

However, time is slowly running out on his side…

Due to the proximity of Norio Kimura’s home to the stricken nuclear plant, level of contamination has made him and other residents impossible to return. The government began a plan in March 2015 to convert the area into a storage centre for all contaminated soils from near by clean up. Although residents are oppose the plan but the government is determined to buy back the land. Norio Kimura does not particularly oppose the plan which will see his home converted into storage space. But at the moment he refuse to give away the land ownership to the government.

“It’s just doesn’t seem fair that this town has to bear such a burden when it has already lost so much…”

On June 30, 2017, 6 years after the disaster, three former executives from Tokyo Electric Power Company, which operates Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant, was indicted for professional negligence.

All three pleaded not guilty…

A Disappearing Streets, and anew…

 

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Ugoku Tanabata Festival, Rikuzentaka, 2016

Imagining this: the home and the community you have lived for most part your life has been razed to the ground in an instant by a catastrophic wave, while at the same time took away lives of your love ones and left you homeless. Now imagine this: The familiar streets you once lived are being filled with dirts after a catastrophic event – tons and tons of dirts in order to build a new ground to prevent future disaster. Yes, you’ll be given a new home, your neighbours might almost be the same, but the familiarity you knew will be forever gone. This, has been a common scene for residents of Rikuzentakata since the tsunami in 2011.

There’s a complex feeling among residents in Rikuzentakata toward the reconstruction project that started in 2013. On one side they were fully understand that the former city centre were not suitable for any new construction without having elevation being modified, but at the same time many were not warm to the idea of having the city re-mapped with so much dirts being moved in. To make the matters worse, from early on there’s a lack of communications between locals and levels of government over what’s best for the city. From what I gathered there was no option plan when it was presented to the locals and representatives from the government basically ram it through during the consolation period.

With the reconstruction project getting in full swing(and some delays of course…) many activities gets disrupted. Among them is the summer Ugoku Tanabata Festival. This has been a big annual event with a chance for communities to show solidarity, but with the disruption floats were spread all over the town instead of gathering in one place as it used to be. The sense of frustration and fatigue were evident among the locals, even though they were happy that they were still able to held the festival this year. Furthermore, numbers of volunteers has been dropped significantly, perhaps due to the false sense of impression that everything has been in progress.

This has made me wonder if the whole idea of reconstructing Tohoku region really benefits all affected areas. Things I heard and seen for the past few weeks has made me question if smaller prefecture were basically left abandoned while the more populous prefecture gets all the benefits(and credits). At a gathering in Hirota District in Rikuzentakata local fishermen were furious about the Iwate prefecture’s decision to ban a certain type of fishing net out right over the environmental concern while fishermen at the more populous Miyagi prefecture down south got off the hook. This is just a one of many examples which made me wonder if things have gone to a worrying trend.

Personally, I really hope not…

Minamisoma, Fukushima

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Takayuki Ueno, Founder of the volunteer group Fukkouhamadan, tidying up the sunflower filed at Okuma Town.

How do you rebuild a town that is under the shadow of radiation concern? For a lot of us the answer might be very simple: You don’t. You just leave and settling elsewhere. But that simple solution might not work well in Japan; complicated registration system with deep-rooted attachment to the land makes it very hard for many to have second option when the triple disaster hit Fukushima prefecture in 2011. Added to the problem is that many evacuees are seniors with no transferable skill other than farming. In the end many within 30km radius evacuation zone chose to return as soon as areas are scaled down. As of July 2016, no-go zone has been scaled down to roughly around 5-10km.

I have visited Minamisoma since 2012 periodically as part of my project on the aftermath of triple disaster, and have witnessed the town slowly returned back to normalcy as the government is gradually allowing residents to return. But the town is still struggling economically as concerns of radiation still affects all sectors of economy. Within the town one can sense a fatigue when you brought up events in 2011. Misinformations and government policy has made residents in the region feel that they’ve been neglected, some even felt betrayed.

But even with so much dissatisfaction of current situation one can feel a strong sense of duty to work toward a better tomorrow. Whether is Takayuki Ueno, Founder of volunteer group Fukkouhamadan whose main task is to search for missing bodies as well as setup events to bring a smile on children’s face, or Masami Yoshizawa, owner of the Ranch of Hope which take cares 300+ radiation exposed cattle as living testimony of the danger of nuclear technology, there is strong will among people in the region to be resilient.

Will the town be overcome the shadow of radiation and thrived? No one knows. There is too many uncertainties involved for anyone to make a sensible prediction. For now, all residents can do is trying to make the place as liveable as possible and hope for the best possible outcome.

Back to Japan

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Cover of Natsuki Yasuda’s new book

There was a self-doubt when I arrived in Japan on the fifth tour into Tohoku region for my ongoing project documenting recovery effort since the triple disaster in 2011. 5 years has passed since the unfortunate event many towns are in the mist of mega construction projects and people are somewhat moving on. But I know there are still many things that can be explored. Problem is that after researching it along for sometime I felt that I’m sort of at the end of it. This is when I decide to seek advice from my fellow photographers and friends Kei and Natsuki.

I was introduced to Kei Sato and Natsuki Yasuda, back in 2013 when I was in the city of Rikuzentakata, a city located about 500km north of Tokyo. It’s a city that has suffered a tremendous damage during the disaster with almost 10% of the population wiped out and 80% of the city destroyed. Among the casualties is Kei’s own mother, who had been living and working at Rikuzentakata at the time. Since then Kei and Natsuki has been visiting Rikuzentakata constantly documenting survivors. During my annual trip to Rikuzentakata they, along with others, have been generously helped me to connect with locals to whom I befriended with.

The meeting, if you’d like to call it, is more like a drinking frenzy…but a productive one nonetheless. One thing that we weren’t able to do when we were in Rikuzentakata is having a discussion about photography in general, and although both has been aware of the work I’ve done since 2012 I’ve never had a chance to show them in a coherent body. There’s also some discussion on few ideas that were in my head for sometime and through the meeting it feels like it may have a chance to turn into a reality. All in all It was a very constructive meeting as well as a happy one…in terms of amount of alcohols we consumed…

So with the night’s over I believe I was able to get myself a bit more organized and will be ready to embrace the journey ahead. It’s still same place I’m heading, but there may be some unexpected stories yet to be discovered around the corner…

By the way, did I mention Kei and Natsuki are couples?

On a side note if you interested in Kei Sato and Natsuki Yasuda’s work in Rikuzentakata both have published books in regard to their work. It’s in Japanese unfortunately but they’re a very compelling work nonetheless.

Kei sato  – https://www.amazon.co.jp/Fragments-魂のかけら-佐藤-慧/dp/4780306930/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1467785353&sr=1-1&keywords=佐藤慧

Natsuki Yasuda – https://www.amazon.co.jp/それでも、海へ-陸前高田に生きる-シリーズ・自然いのちひと-安田-菜津紀/dp/4591148114/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1467785330&sr=1-2&keywords=安田なつき

Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, 5 years on…

 (Pengkuei Ben Huang)

Rikuzenakata, August 2014

In the morning of March 11, 2011 I was getting on my morning routines for work but for some strange urge I turned on the TV, something I don’t usually do. Then I was stunned to learn one of the most powerful earthquake in the century has been hit off coast of northeastern Japan and triggered a tsunami followed by the nuclear crisis second to Chernobyl. As events unfold I found myself in the mist of contacting friends in Japan and making sure they are safe.

Little more than a year later on the summer of 2012 I began my journey to the disaster affected area documenting the lives after the terrible event. Since then I’ve been revisiting towns every year, photographing the progress and lend the helping hand if needed.

I don’t know what compels me to undergo this journey, I don’t think I can even answer that myself. What is certain is that along the way I’ve met some of amazing people I’ve ever encountered. And through their wisdoms I’ve learned or have relearned many things.

As those of us commemorate the 5 years anniversary of the tragic disaster. One has to be reminded that five years onward challenges of rebuilding the region is still there. Perhaps more crucial than ever. Painful experiences learned through the unfortunate event can be served as educational tool to teach the public anywhere from disaster prevention to reconstruction planning.

Pray for Tohoku…

Okushiri Island

While I was on my project in Rikuzentakata I often wonder if similar plan has been done before. Then a friend of mine Ebinuma traveled to a small island off the coast of Hokkaido and shared his experience things became a bit more clear. I’m sharing this so that the non-Japanese speakers can get better sense of the potential challenges Rikuzentakata will be facing in the years to come.

Okushiri Island, a small island off the coast of Hokkaido, Japan was hit by an equally devastating tsunami which inundated parts of island in 1993. A reconstruction plan that involved mega infrastructure projects was initiated not too long after the disaster with the cost of roughly CAN$1.3bn. The result? population decline and worst burdened the local municipality’s budget since it is local’s responsibility to maintain the facility.

While there are many reasons to explain the declined population at Okushiri, one thing made clear is that infrastructure project often does not lure people back to remote towns, disaster stricken or not. There must be a policy that accompany the construction so that new bloods can be injected into the community and in turn reviving the local economy.

Heat Wave…..@Rikuzentakata

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Another heat wave at Rikuzentakata…

Been noticing the trend since I arrived here – that there’s hardly any rain for the last 2+ weeks. It was bad enough for locals to worry since there isn’t enough rain to replenish rivers at this point, which would affect rice farmers greatly. Call it El Nino or Climate Change I really hope this heat wave would end sometime since not only it’ll affect the crops in the long term, in the immediate terms heat exhaustion will be an grave concern especially during the Tanabata Festival on August 7, where crowds will be out for hours under the extreme conditions.

Frank Espada 1930-2014

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I’m have to say I’ve known little about Frank, Even though I was once student of his. It could be perhaps back in the days I, among other classmates, were spent most of our times in the darkroom perfecting the print he was asking for. But it was his passion as a documentary photographer and his dedication to push us to become a better printer that inspired us, especially those of us who end up pursuing photojournalistic related works.

A Puerto Rican decent and the true disciple of Eugene Smith, Frank lived through a turbulent time in the 1960s both as a photographer and an activist in the US. He was actively involved in many grassroots projects while capturing The Civil Rights Era through his lens. Between 1979 and 1981 he documented 30 Puerto Rican diaspora communities both in the Mainland US and Hawaii through a grant from National Endowment for the Humanities. The project gain its recognition through the form of exhibitions and a book published in 2006.

Frank’s passion for teaching is unquestionable. As the student of Eugene Smith, he was a firm believer in having a photographic production done entirely by the hands of photographer. I remembered when I was his student he would always pushing students to spent more time to refine their prints, as he believed the importance of the craft. In today’s digital dominated world this might seem obsolete but the craft we learned from him gave us a foundation to be a better photographer as we slowed down, became more focused and disciplined.

It is saddened that Frank had passed away. But he’ll always be remembered.

Rochefort

 (Pengkuei Ben Huang)

How do you bring about the awareness to inhabitants that there will be increasing natural disasters in the region in the foreseeable future, when catastrophic events rarely occurred here? How do you bring the same attention to city officials that they need to come up with a sound policy to avoid the potential apocalypse to the region because of  the climate change? The workshop organized by Risk and Architecture Workshop and the city of Rochefort in Western France hope to deliver that attention by bringing multinational talents and students from architectural field to come up with ideas that will spark more engagement from the public.

The week long workshop held between September 14 and September 21 focussed on three areas: Preserving and maintaining heritage of the region, Building a future sustainable economy and adopting the changing landscape, in particular near the coastal area where it is susceptible to sea submersion. Participants were divided into groups based on these three areas and asked to come up with radical but sound ideas to present them to the public on the final day, in which everyone in the city of Rochefort was invited.

The workshop generated some buzz in the city. The constant media coverage through out the week garnered some attention to the public. Assistances from the municipal office provided valuable data to participants who did not know the region very well, and in term helped them to polish their ideas to reshape the city. Reactions from locals who joined the final presentation, though surprised by some of the wild ideas, was generally positive. All in all, the workshop had achieved what it set out to do – to create an awareness. To turn that awareness into an engagement and eventually implement a cohesive policy for the future, however, will take years to materialize if there is a political will.