Restoring the Time Capsule

Restoring the Time Capsule

For those who grew up in Fukushima, the disaster didn’t just destroy their home town, it stole their childhood memories.


I grew up in a city in the middle of Fukushima prefecture, mostly unaware of the fact that there were nuclear power plants near the coast. People closer to the power plants, however, lived with the fear that someday something like this would happen. When a hydrogen explosion occurred in the No. 1 reactor on March 12, and the terrible news was broadcast live, the situation was almost like the Cuban missile crisis. We were afraid there would be a full meltdown. Like those living under threat of a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union, we had the awful feeling that the world was about to end.

By now life in Tokyo has mostly gone back to normal. During the scheduled power outages, when the city was so dark at night, it was like a city at war, hiding from air raids. Beginning in April, however, the atmosphere changed quickly. Now everyone is spending money to help the recovery.

Only Fukushima is still at war. People don’t go outside without wearing masks. Their children can’t play outside. And no one knows when this war will be over. If they lose, the radiation problem will only get worse. We hope they can stop the radiation, but no one knows when the war will end.

People praised the reaction of ordinary Japanese citizens to the disaster. I think what they saw was less a demonstration of the Japanese character than of the character of Tohoku, northeast Japan. The people there live in this cold place where it snows so much. They are slow to give their opinion. They work doggedly. They might not seem friendly at first, but they never complain. It is in part because of this reticence that the nuclear power plants that supply Tokyo with power were forced upon them. And they alone are bearing the burden. From now on, if the people of Tokyo want a nuclear power plant, let them build one in their own city.

The people of Fukushima are facing a second problem: discrimination. For example, when someone from Fukushima tries to make a reservation at a hotel in a different prefecture, they’re told they can’t stay there. When they try to go to a gas station in another prefecture, they’re told that cars with Fukushima plates can’t fill up there. I’ve heard people say that women from Fukushima will have trouble getting married because of the belief that the radiation might affect their future children. The people who think this way might represent a minuscule minority of the whole country, but for me the saddest part is that because of the radiation leak we have lost that sense of unity that we had after the earthquake. As the victims of the earthquake and the tsunami, the people of Japan had the world’s sympathy. I still believed that if we joined together we could bring things back to the way they used to be.

However, with the radiation leak and the release of contaminated water into the ocean, the country, in a sense, went from being a victim to being a perpetrator.

As a citizen, I’m not sure what to do.

As a novelist, I’m putting the manuscript I was writing in a drawer for now. On the day of the earthquake, I was in Kyoto doing research. There’s no way to continue it as if the earthquake hadn’t happened.

I’m from Fukushima. There’s no escaping that.

One of the rituals of grade school in Japan is for the students to fill up a time capsule at graduation and bury it in the ground at school. They are supposed to dig it up in twenty years, but in my school the ground that held our memories was contaminated by radiation. The bulldozers carted it all away.

It feels as if all of our childhood memories were destroyed. I want the book I’m writing to restore that time capsule. I don’t care if it takes ten years or twenty. It’s the work I need to do.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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