The bGeigie Diaries: Travelling Through Invisible Time In Fukushima

This schoolyard in Iitate was decontaminated in January, 2012. Will it ever be deemed fit to use again?

The following is a collection of impressions and thoughts from a recent trip to the Fukushima region with Safecast. It is a personal account of the trip and should be read as such.

March 13th, 2018, approximately 3.30 pm

The high school looks and feels like almost any other that you can find throughout Japan.

On the grounds outside the main building, which looks like it’s put together out of oversized concrete Lego bricks, a sweating football team is running through the last of the day’s practice drills on a reddish, sandy pitch. The trophy cabinet inside the entrance hall suggests that they’re pretty good. I grew up playing football (still wondering how the national team coach must have lost my phone number), and it tugs at invisible strings to look on from the sidelines. I had the luxury of real grass pitches. It makes you play differently, more freely. Most of the teenagers throwing themselves around this pitch in Fukushima today are probably blissfully unaware of what they’re missing out on. This is what they are used to.

Somewhere on the second floor, a music teacher, who must either have gone full Beethoven or have the patience of a saint, is subjecting him or herself to an hour in the company of the most disorganised horn section I have ever heard. Perhaps they’re not practising classics but playing modern, avant-garde, 12-tone jazz. The bleeps, blaahhts, and screeches echo across a courtyard where small groups of students move between buildings.

I walk down the hallway’s grey, laminated floors, past classrooms, and curious, inquisitive heads pop up out of textbooks and physics experiments to see who’s come to visit on this perfectly ordinary Tuesday afternoon.

Most of them must have been around 10 years old, and likely in school, on Friday, March 11th, 2011, at 14:46 JST when the Tohoku earthquake struck. I wonder where they were when radioactive plumes punched their way skyward out of the smashed Daiichi nuclear reactors just days later. At school? At home? How much radiation exposure were they subjected to?

In the middle of the school parking lot, there is a square silver box the size of a concrete brick. The big, red neon digits on it don’t look like they are displaying time in any known format. No signs or logos seem to indicate where the box comes from or what exactly it’s doing there. The numbers are radioactivity levels and the device is a government sensor. Similar units have been installed across the Fukushima region. Unfortunately, very little information about them was made public at the time. Barely three feet away from it, a Safecast sensor sits atop a pole. 

We are here to hand over a new Solarcast to one of the teachers, Watanabe-sensei, a long-time Safecast collaborator and volunteer. He plans to put it up in his garden at his house, not far from the school.

March 13th, 2018, 10 am

Earlier the same day, the trip to Fukushima gets off to a less than auspicious start. Especially considering that Safecast is (today it perhaps needs an amended ‘supposedly’) a technology- and data-driven not-for-profit organisation. The problem is that the car won’t start. The battery is dead. Perhaps because the car has been modded to be part mobile office, part Safecast lead vehicle, and what feels like a curious mix of Batmobile and the car from the Blues Brothers-film. Today, it’s also serving as a sound recording truck. The trip to Fukushima involves recording the performance of jazz great David Matthews, who will perform at a club in Fukushima City.

Joe Moross in the driver’s seat and yours truly, hugged by stacks of electronic equipment, is in the backseat. The front passenger seat is – I guess in deference of age – the domicile of Pieter Franken.

Pieter and Joe are happily married. And apparently not to each other, though you could be forgiven for thinking so if you spent some time in their company. That’s also the case with the rest of the core members of Safecast, and, in my experience, extends to the volunteers. A rapid-fire, irony-laden back-and-forth tells a story of people with wit, smarts and a shared purpose, comfortable and happy in each other’s company.

Dribbling out an external power supply, Joe giving a (for him) short talk about properties of car batteries and five minutes of looking at the engine and kicking tires later, we are on our way. Apart from recording jazz and delivering the aforementioned Solarcast unit, we will be checking in on Safecast sensors and speaking to people in the region who work with the group. It will include two hours spent in the company of the hugely inspirational zen priest Sadamaru Okano who collected radiation data before, during and after the days after the Daiichi disaster. The data in his graphs show radiation peaks in the days after the disaster of up to 50 times above what many consider to be safe.

The Zen priest Sadamaru Okano and his wife at Seirinji temple.

During our conversation, his zen calm will waver as he speaks of the lack of information that made it next to impossible for locals to make informed decisions about whether to stay or evacuate the area. 

March 14th, 2018, approximately 1PM

A small girl, aged around two, stutter-runs across the 7-11 parking lot (I want to coin it – and perhaps copyright the phrase – ‘totters-at-speed’). Her face is covered by a white mask, but the excited eyes beneath two bobbing pigtails clearly broadcast that the concept of running is the best invention ever. As is often the case, the legs and mind try to negotiate exactly what’s supposed to be going on here, reach an impasse in their negotiations, both decide to take a break, while all momentum sensors are waking up to the fact that something is horribly, horribly wrong. Last-ditch attempts to get brain and legs talking again fail, and the headline of the whole thing simply reads: ‘Kabooomph!’ Thankfully, there’s no damage done, and the girl flashes a big grin to no-one in particular, half covered by the face mask that’s ended up ajar after the fall, as her mother unhurriedly catches up, dusts off the little girl, takes her hand and leads her into the store.

Ask Safecast volunteers or local residents and they will likely tell you that during the first years after the accident, the fall would have led to a big commotion. Parents would be panicking, running up to quickly put the mask back in place, and immediately taking the child to the nearest water faucet to make sure that hands and any other exposed skin area were washed thoroughly. Better safe than sorry. Who knows what radioactive residue could be left on the ground?

March 14th, 2018, 4pm

The Shinkansen train smoothly pulls out of the elevated platform at Fukushima City Station. On the streets below, people are going about their daily business. Much of the city looks new, and the area around the station looks similar to places in Tokyo or Osaka.

The snow-covered mountains in the distance and blue skies above provide a stunning backdrop as the train gathers speed and whisks past brown rice fields, waiting for spring.

The train goes into a tunnel, and I find myself thinking that the experience somehow feels like a metaphor for Fukushima:

Imagine that you, and everyone you know, are on a train heading into a tunnel. It’s a daily life experience except this trip is different; you don’t know if you will ever re-emerge into the sunshine on the other side – and you have no idea what is lurking in that darkness.

That’s an overstatement, and overly full of pained, protracted pathos (see also: fancy-pants), I know. However, increases in stress-related illness in and around Fukushima has emerged as one clear consequence of Daiichi in the aftermath of 2011. Some refer to stress as the invisible killer. It has no taste, colour, smell, or tangible form. It’s just there.

To an outsider, a visitor, time feels very strange in Fukushima. In some areas close to the exclusion zone, it is like it hasn’t moved at all. Other places it feels like it has moved forward from 2011 at the same speed as elsewhere in Japan. Fukushima City feels, looks and moves much like any other Japanese city I’ve been to. For many people in the area, time must keep fluttering back and forth between these two extremes. Life goes on, sure, but something of the magnitude of Tohoku and Daiichi never really leaves you. It changes you. Permanently.

And then there is the invisible time. The invisible clocks counting down the time it may take for some health effects of exposure to radiation to be traceable, for one. The unknown time left before Fukushima ‘returns to normal’ or the decontamination efforts are considered completed. Or the time that the children at the high school feel like has passed since 2011. Are those days and events a distant memory for them? Or something that just happened and still impacts their daily lives?

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.