The bGeigie Diaries: The Temple Tale Of Fukushima City

Sadamaru Okano and his wife at Seirinji temple.

Sadamaru Okano is a Zen priest at the Seirinji temple in the Fukushima region. He is one of the few individuals to have systematically collected radiation data in Fukushima that predates the Safecast data set. Here he speaks about his experiences in Fukushima around the time of  the earthquake of 2011 and why he stays involved with Safecast seven years after the Daiichi nuclear meltdown.

You are one of the few people that had radiation data from the time predating the 2011 Tohoku earthquake. What led you to start collecting that data?

When I was young – or should I say younger – in the late 80s and early 90s, I travelled quite a bit, many times in connection with volunteering. It introduced me to many cultures and gave me many friends from all over the world. On a couple of the trips, I met volunteers from countries in Eastern Europe. Of course, I knew about Chernobyl, but in my mind, it was over. This was the way that most people thought and felt about it. However, I met volunteers from Belarus and Ukraine who told me that it was definitely not over. That was one of the things that made me start to study radioactive materials and later to start taking measurements in the area around the temple where I am a priest today.

The temple and your family have a long relation to this area, I believe. Can you tell me a bit about it and your memories of growing up here in Fukushima?   

Our current temple, where we sit today, is over 150 years old. Before that, there was a similar temple on the grounds. My mother was born in Kawauchi village, and we have many relatives in other cities across the prefecture. I have cousins that used to live in Namie and Tomioka – most of them cannot go back there because of the exclusion zone. Today, they live in places like Tokyo, Kamakura, and Saitama.

Growing up in the post-war era, I loved going to my cousins and relatives who lived on the seaside. My sister and I would visit my uncle’s house for two weeks in the summer. The government was investing a lot of money in construction along the coast, and we were amazed to see that they had things like paved roads. At home, we still had jarimichi – gravel roads. Many elderly people in the coastal towns would stop us and give us okozukai – a kind of pocket money. Of course, my sister and I were very happy with this.

Growing up, I was very much of two minds about whether I should follow my father’s path and become a priest. My father, who became my teacher and master, gave me the freedom to choose. At a point during my college years, I realised that I wanted to follow on in the family tradition.

Our local community has around 350 houses, and I realised that if I became a priest, I would become a useful person for the people in that community. After college, I was trained by a senpai who, like a master, instructed me in the way to get in touch with people by my own heart – a way that is built on listening to them by myself in order to empathise with them. My function is not to be someone who is trying to save people, but someone who can listen, understand, and help bring clarity.

You were in the area on the day of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake. What were your experiences and your memories of those days?

I had been in Iitate village with my wife and three-year-old son. We were driving back home at the time. It may sound strange if you have never experienced it, but being inside a car makes an earthquake feel less severe. We knew that it was serious, though, so I pulled the car over to the side of the road. It was around that time that the first quake subsided. Then the second one struck. On the mountainside ahead of us, a kawamata, a form of stacked retaining wall, was shaken loose and slid down. Cracks, some up to 20-30 centimetres wide, appeared in the road surface. By the end, I found myself clinging to the steering wheel. The second quake was followed by a third, each seemingly as powerful as the one before it.

Luckily, none of us were injured, and we decided to keep going towards the temple and our house.

Driving back to our temple and house, I was convinced that I would find that they had been destroyed by the quakes. I was surprised and happy to see that it wasn’t the case. Other houses in the area, however, were quite damaged. A couple of houses had roofs hanging off. A couple others had collapsed walls.

I was worried and wondered if people were safe or not, so I started going around to the neighbours. Ten of the houses in the area were seriously damaged, but luckily nobody was injured.

Throughout the day, we had so many aftershocks. And then there was the tsunami. First, there was a tsunami warning, and I immediately thought about my relatives living on the coast. My cousins live on high ground, but they used to work at the seaside. I remember seeing the first images of the coastal areas, including near where my uncle’s family had lived when I was a child.

That day was so full of activity. It wasn’t until that night that I realised that my son hadn’t spoken a word since the first quake. At his age at the time, children are constantly talking. He was no different. But for the first few days after the quake, he didn’t say a word.

What was it like to be in the area in the days after the quake, as the situation around Daiichi became clearer?

I had been already gathering radiation data in my local area for some time before that. After the quake, I kept on taking measurements. I was very worried about the situation with the nuclear power plants, and while there was some doubt, I thought that there had very likely been a meltdown. I also remembered visits to my uncle when the power plant was under construction, and I knew that it was right on the coast. I was worried that it was too near the water and built on too low ground.

The situation kept evolving and while we were being told by the Government and TEPCO that things were fine, I was taking measurements around my temple that were 30 to 50 times above normal background. Of course, I was very worried.

At the same time, family and people from the nearby areas started to arrive at the temple. I think that at one point there were 85 people here. Many would not be able to return to their homes after Daiichi. Today, some people that were displaced by the tsunami live in what was supposed to be temporary housing on the hill below the temple.  

One strange thing was that some refugees that came to us were unaware of the fact that there had been a tsunami. The quake and waves had knocked out the electricity supply and much of the information infrastructure, so they had no access to information. The first time they saw the tsunami was on TV and they were very shocked.

There was a lot of confusion about what was happening. The Government put out a warning that told people to ‘shelter in place’. It means to stay inside and close windows. At the same time, the evacuation zone around Daiichi kept being expanded. First, it was three kilometres, then five, seven, ten, 20 kilometres, and a 30km ‘shelter in place’ zone. One thing I remember from the time is that no one talked about whether food and water were safe to consume at that time.

Was it at that time you came into contact with Safecast?

No, that happened much later. My first contact with Safecast was actually based around a misunderstanding.

In July of 2013, Joe Moross and Kiki Tanaka were in the area to install a Pointcast, a fixed real-time radiation monitoring system. There was a misunderstanding with the person where the sensor was supposed to be installed, and there wasn’t the necessary internet. One of the local Safecast volunteers, Munakata-san, said that there was a Zen priest in Fukushima City who had been collecting radiation data for a long time. Why not come here to the temple and ask if they could put up the sensor?

When they arrived, my initial reaction was that this was just what I had been looking for.

For me, what I have done, and part of why I continue to work with Safecast, is the focus on open, communal data. We need to have different data sets in order to compare results and find a way to establish the facts. For me, I had no one to directly compare my own results with. Perhaps very few people outside of the local area knew that I was taking measurements. Since then, there has been a Safecast radiation monitor attached to the temple.

When you say that your reaction to meeting Safecast was that this was exactly what you had been looking for, what do you mean?

After the earthquake, I think that for most people in the Fukushima area it quickly became apparent that the information that was coming out of the Government and TEPCO was, to put it mildly, incorrect. The idea that everything was safe, which was what they started with saying, quickly turned into a myth. People lost their belief in the objectivity of data and information coming from those channels.

I serve a function for my community, and I speak to many of the members of my neighbourhood very regularly. The general feeling after the meltdown was that people were scared. We knew that the plant had exploded and radioactive materials were in the atmosphere. Some people decided to evacuate. Some decided to stay. However, no one really knew what the situation was really like.

Access to data and information that can be compared to other sources enables people to make their own decisions. You can present them to people and say ‘these are just numbers. I will not tell you what to think about them. You can choose if you think that it’s safe or not for your life – if it’s safe to play outside, go into the mountains, or fish in the rivers.’

As a religious person, I believe that this is our destiny. It’s our own opportunity to choose a better way to live. And in the end, this is a decision that we must make by ourselves.

As a gadget guy, I believe that we need to continue measuring on a daily basis. The data we generate that way can be used to society’s benefit.

As a parent, I will use this data, radiation measurements, and the idea about open access to data and information to educate my son so he will be able to decide his own destiny and help people in the community that he chooses to live in.  

About the Author

Marc Prosser

Marc is British, Danish, Geekish, Bookish, Sportish, and loves anything in the world that goes 'booiingg'. He is a freelance journalist and researcher living in Tokyo and writes about all things science and tech. He started volunteering for Safecast after writing articles about their work following the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami - and because he believes that data and technology should be open and readily available.