After the Sky fell: six years later, Fukushima is still trying to move on from the Tsunami and Nuclear meltdowns.

Author:Armington, Susan
Position:Essay
 
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  1. [ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

    Japan's Joban Highway carries my husband, Yuichi, and me out of Tokyo, and northeast toward the coast. Though Yuichi is a Tokyoite and loves the city, I grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey, and for me it is a chest-releasing pleasure to escape the congestion, the infinity of walls, the maze of unending concrete.

    We pass scruffy towns and billboards, gas stations and outbuildings, and then the land frees up. It lifts in waves of brown and gold, with black tile roofs of farmhouses tucked into its nooks and curves. It soothes my spirit--burnished grasses, dark green trees, and hills lightly dusted with snow.

    At a rest stop, I wait in the shiny white rental car as Yuichi runs into the bathroom. I fiddle with my camera, then look around for something to photograph. Just meters away, on the gray cement wall, shine four fresh panels of Japanese folk art--a school girl gazing at clouds of cherry blossoms, a costumed horse and rider, boys and men in white with bare legs and festive flags. I tilt my camera and notice a pole blocking my view. When I zoom out, I see it holds a black digital panel that spells out in neon orange: 0.1 mSv/h. Suddenly, I realize: It's the level of radioactivity we are driving into.

    Thus begins our trip to Fukushima--nearly six years after the magnitude 9 earthquake, the devastating tsunami, and catastrophic meltdowns at the Daiichi nuclear plant. It was the fourth-most powerful earthquake on record. The disaster left more than 15,000 people dead, and more than 200,000 without homes.

    Today, while the Japanese government claims that everything is under control, some people see a disaster still unfolding. Yuichi and I have been invited to visit. We will meet with local activists, witness their events, and see if my work in art and community-building is of use to them.

    When I point out the radiation meter, Yuichi inspects it. As a physicist who has worked at high-energy physics labs, he is used to radiation alerts. But, he concludes, "It's hard for me to say what kind of danger this shows." That makes two of us.

    We pass huge mountains, thick with pine, their twists and curves outlined against a blazing blue sky. Down in the fields, strange-looking piles wrapped in green plastic catch my eye. The plastic covers rectangular mounds, some almost flat and the size of swimming pools, others two or three meters tall and twice as long. They're packed neatly with rows to walk between.

    "Oh my god," I give a start. "Those must be the radioactive piles that Shun told me about."

    Shun Nakamura, a neuroscientist friend of ours, had told us about his visits here and the piles of radioactive soil.

    "What's it doing in the middle of the fields?" I had asked him.

    "There's no place else to put it," he replied. " No one will take it."

    "How long will it sit there?" I'd asked, knowing that radioactivity can last hundreds of years.

    Shun looked back at me.

    "Mm" was all he'd said, letting the realization sink in.

    There is no other plan.

  2. We continue driving. On our left, another sign says: 1.5 mSv/h. There is also a sign, which Yuichi translates for me, forbidding motorcycles on the highway.

    "Why?" I wonder out loud.

    "Exposure to radioactive dust," he tells me. "If it gets in the body, it can be an enormous hazard. You breathe it in and it goes directly into your system."

    I'm glad our windows are closed and the intake duct is shut.

    A fresh road sign for "Tomioka Town" flies past. It's light blue with a band of spritely cherry blossoms. What a lovely place! it seems to say. Below in the fields, I spot more green plastic mounds. Here and there, cropping up like giant toadstools, thick black garbage bags are neatly packed in fat cylinders. These too, I learn later, hold radioactive dirt. Tomioka...

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