Inside the Fukushima Exclusion Zone: Place and Memory after Disaster

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Pablo Figueroa. Pablo is an assistant professor in the Center for International Education at Waseda University in Tokyo. In this position, he teaches courses on globalization, leadership, and disasters. His anthropological research is centered on risk communication, citizen participation, and cultural representations of the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe. His most recent publications are two book chapters, Subversion and Nostalgia in Art Photography of the Fukushima Disaster and Nuclear Risk Governance and the Fukushima Triple Disasters: Lessons Unlearned, both forthcoming in 2016.

All images copyright by Pablo Figueroa.


Inside the Fukushima Exclusion Zone: Place and Memory after Disaster

by Pablo Figueroa

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A street of Namie Town in the Fukushima Exclusion Zone, May 2015.

FROM BEHIND THE WINDSHIELD of the moving car the landscape looks exuberant, unpolluted. Warm morning sunlight bathes the forest to the side of Tomioka highway, a 69 km stretch of pavement also known as National Road 114 that connects Fukushima with the town of Namie. It’s a Sunday morning and few people can be seen. The feeling of emptiness is vast and real. From time to time, large plastic bags appear along the road, neatly stacked one on top of the other. The orderly layout obliterates a much more messy reality: The bags contain highly radioactive soil that was removed from villages and fields during the so-called “cleanup efforts” following the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Their final destination undecided, the ominous recipients are a painful reminder of what happens when trying to decontaminate the environment after a nuclear catastrophe. You can scrape topsoil and wash the surface with pressure hoses as much as you like but Cesium-137, which has a half-life of 30 years, will keep coming down from hills along with other radioactive isotopes, carried by rain and wind, dispersing in manifold and uncontrollable ways.


I have been to this part of Japan for ethnographic fieldwork before, but never to Namie Town. In April 2011, the government declared a 20km radius from the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant an exclusion zone, and Namie fell into this perimeter. Without a permit issued by the Town Hall, people cannot go through the checkposts. Police zealously custody the almost empty towns. The authorities are fed up with thieves, journalists, and other trespassers. Defying this ban can lead to fines and imprisonment.

We are three occupants in the car. One of them, Yosuke Kinoshita (This is not his real name, for privacy reasons I am using a pseudonym) is originally from Namie. Namie—like other neighboring villages—became deserted due to forced evacuation (local residents were told to escape but not why; they did not know where to go, or how long they would be away).  Because his family house is located within the no-go zone, he is allowed permission to enter for a few hours at a time, in order to visit the abandoned property. The officials at the checkpoint, wearing gloves, masks and helmets, inspect our documents, IDs, and open the gate letting us into the forbidden zone.

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We drive through town. It is odd that the traffic lights are working when there are no vehicles. There is nobody around, either. The scenes in front of us testify that time in Namie has stopped. In the turmoil of earthquake, tsunami, and evacuation, bicycles and cars were left abandoned; shops remain untouched after owners were forced to escape. And then, during the days to come, hydrogen explosions at the stricken reactors emitted an invisible blanket of radiation that silently and tragically covered Namie.

I get off the car at the main street to snap a few photos when suddenly police stop us. We are questioned at large. Why are we carrying cameras? What are we doing here? Are we journalists trying to pass as visitors? This treatment somehow puzzles me; as officers trying to enforce the law, their reaction is perhaps understandable but seems out of proportion. If criminal actions are to be found, it is surely among people and organizations that privileged their own self-interest rather than protecting public wellbeing.

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Once cleared out, our trip continues and we head to the Kinoshita’s household.  We get off the car wearing gloves and facemasks although we know they offer little protection against radiation. The aerial levels of radiation are supposed to be lower than the standard required by the Japanese government for decontamination—so we are told—but there is reason to believe there might be undetected hot spots (In addition, whether the official readings of radiation can be trusted, is a matter of dispute). We follow Kinoshita through the rubble in the garden and into the falling house. The construction is badly deteriorated.  “It’s worse every time I come”, he says. “The floor is rotten. Watch your step.”

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He guides us into the living room, kitchen, and other sections of the house. Objects lie all around exactly as they fell after the earthquake four years ago: family photographs, furniture, a TV set, golf clubs, kitchen utensils. I look into Kinoshita’s eyes; they look sad and pensive. A long silence falls upon us and I can’t help but imagine the tranquil life his parents must have led in this idyllic place before becoming nuclear evacuees.

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Later on we go to the coast, where the tsunami washed away the entire lower part of town, getting as far as two kilometers inland. The debris has been cleared out and is now placed in designated dumpsites. At the port of Ukedo I climb up a wall facing the beach. The silhouette of Fukushima Daiichi, which I have seen uncountable times on photographs and videos, appears in the distance, the reactors enshrouded in a heat haze. Waves break in the shore while seagulls plunge into the water, oblivious to the massive amount of radioactive water that is spilled everyday into this striking ocean. Here stands a monument to institutional failure, to corporate irresponsibility, a truly Man-Made Disaster, framed into a beautiful postcard-like image. Fukushima Daiichi is such a perfect metaphor of the human condition at the Capitalocene.

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I sit and silently weep. This unexpected release of emotion makes me momentarily void of thoughts. The only feeling that remains is awe of the deep-blue sea in front of me.


The socioanthropological contribution to society in times of disaster is surely limited; no amount of ethnographic writing can ever fix a human tragedy in a measurable way. The pre-existing social fabric of Namie (and Fukushima) has ceased to exist, never to be recovered. Almost five years on, the future of hundreds of thousands of evacuees remains uncertain. And yet, people of Fukushima want to have their stories told. As anthropologists, it is our job and our mission to tell those stories in a meaningful way.

In the official discourse, Japan is fine, Fukushima is fine, nuclear power is fine, and the affected people are fine. Almost five years on, the victims of nuclear power remain, in a way, victims. The tragedy was imposed on them. Their voices have not been heard; rather, people’s notions of place and memory have been subsumed into an official discourse crafted by a state narrative.

Just days after the Fukushima disaster Nobel laureate Oe Kenzaburo wrote, “Once again we must look at things through the eyes of the victims of nuclear power, of the men and the women who have proved their courage through suffering. The lesson that we learn from the current disaster will depend on whether those who survive it resolve not to repeat their mistakes.” (See, Oe Kenzaburo, History Repeats. The New Yorker. March 28, 2011. Link.)

This is something the Japanese government, the nuclear sector, and society as a whole should learn from.

Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson is Project Cataloger at The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, and currently working on a CLIR ‘hidden collections’ grant to describe the museum’s collection of early 20th Century photography. He has a doctorate in anthropology from the University of North Carolina and a Masters in information science from the University of Tennessee.

17 thoughts on “Inside the Fukushima Exclusion Zone: Place and Memory after Disaster

  1. Why is it that many of us in America have never heard of some of these events? I think that this is a story that needs to be heard more often even thought it took place years ago.

  2. I’m curious about what the overarching message is for this piece. The photos were a great addition for telling a story that captures a sense of desertion and create emotions in the reader. However it seems, especially at the end, that the topic of importance is how often the victim is overlooked or that their voice is unheard, yet in this blog it remains so. Though the author visits the town and the home of one of these victims, we never hear the victims voice, don’t know their name, or even see their face or maybe just a silhouette in the ruins. Seems contradictive, or was this done to prove a point?

  3. I think the biggest problem with these catastrophic events (any nuclear leak, the BP oil spills, etc.) is the lengths those in charge go to convince everyone is ok. I’m surprised the author was surprised that the local police didn’t want journalists photographing the results. There is so much denial about how extensive the damage is from these accidents. The Orca’s are just one example of how bad things got.

    I’ve read several scientists who propose that Japan accept help to ensure this never happens again whether they like it or not. That the risks of another fall out are too great to leave to pride. I’m not sure if I agree, though I certainly understand the urgency.

  4. An important message in this article is for this event not to be repeated again but what is the community of Namie evacuees doing to prevent from history repeating itself?

  5. There seems to be a lot of opposition from the local police regarding journalists and cameras. While they were allowed to be there, their encounter with the police seems rather innocuous while the tone that is portrayed is a slightly threatening one. The real question is, who is telling the story here? “In the official discourse, Japan is fine, Fukushima is fine…” It seems that while the government runs the story here, the people are left confused about what really happened and why they were forced to evacuate. Where is the discourse from the victims? Their stories need to be heard so people don’t have to rely on biased news sources.

  6. Does Yosuke Kinoshita visit his house in Namie with any other purpose than just to see it every once in a while? Does he take pictures, document his experience to share with his family?

  7. Is the purpose of this article to actually listen to the victims of this event? The pictures certainly make the reader feel sorry for the victims, but the actual experience of the victim is seemingly absent from this article. I believe the article was written to show that we readers are able to see and hear. However, are we able to listen and understand?

  8. I am curious if this experience is typical when researching issues such as the one faced in this blog. What a wonderful yet devastating eye opener to worldly events.

  9. In this case, Is it the job of an anthropologist to try and reimagine what took place in the disaster zone in order to figure out how to stop the same mistakes from being made twice? What is the point of telling the story of the victims unless we do our best to better the future with the lessons from their suffering?

  10. Why does the media in the United States cover disasters like this so heavily, but never follow up? I remember when the Fukushima disaster happened, media outlets were focused on it for a few weeks and then all the sudden it was forgotten. Americans aren’t able to understand the full magnitude of a situation like this if they aren’t able to see the long lasting repercussions.

  11. I agree that although well-intended, this post is a bit hypocritical. Figueroa states that “As anthropologists, it is our job and our mission to tell those stories in a meaningful way,” yet he himself does not do that here. To be frank, the post only talks about the “story” from Figueroa’s point of view and what he sort of imagines to be true based on the things he sees in Namie. How can we let the actual words of these people be heard? What can we do to refrain from imposing our own ideas on what the story is?

  12. This story reminds me of the Chernobyl disaster that happened in the Ukraine. Many people were affected by the aftermath of the disaster. It left many children mentally disabled, diseased, and plagued with cancer due to radiation. The Namie disaster, thankfully left no hurt. The people are fine, but their homes remain condemned. What will come of the future of Namie even though it is condemned? Is there not a way to start over?

  13. Why is it that the Fukushima nuclear meltdown has not received much media and international attention in comparison to other nuclear meltdowns, such as the Three Mile Island accident or the Chernobyl disaster?

  14. Reading this article and seeing these pictures make one’s heart aches about all the troubles and disasters around us that the media never cares to show us. And on top of that, Japan’s government trying to cover it all up and make it seem like everything and everyone seems fine there when evidently it’s not. The hundreds of thousands of people that got evacuated from their town, how did the government help them in this transition? It’s a huge mess to have all these people leave their homes, their jobs, everything and just move out with nothing. How are these people living now? I wish there was more insight in this article of these people’s lives now. In the end of the day, it’s not only Japan’s Government that tend to make everything seem fine when in reality it is far from fine. For one to really find out what’s going on around them with all this chaos and trouble happening around, we have to go and search for it ourselves and educate ourselves. So many voices around the world have been silenced, and the governments, countries and people have turned a blind eye to them but thanks to all the people for hearing these voices out and showing us part of these people misery.

  15. Why is it that the previous residents of a seemingly-dangerous and perhaps, still radioactive location, are allowed to go back and visit the place they were evacuated from?

  16. I am wondering if more people read articles like this if it would change their perspective of nuclear energy? Industrialized countries such as the United States or France have seen consistently high levels of support for nuclear energy. However, in other countries its growth has drawn skepticism. Pakistan is constructing a nuclear power plant in an area vulnerable to tsunamis near Karachi — a city with about 20 million inhabitants. If one of the plant’s reactors were to melt down, large parts of the city would be directly affected. So, why do many countries keep pushing nuclear energy?

  17. In regards to the clean up after this tragic disaster, how does the Japanese government plan to move everyone back to their family homes?

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