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Uncanny Terrain in Spanish magazine Dar Lugar

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Co-director Ed M. Koziarski wrote an article about Uncanny Terrain for new Spanish magazine Dar Lugar.  Here are links to the article, followed by the original English text.

Dar Lugar part 1

Dar Lugar part 2

Dar Lugar 1

Asami’s modest voice crackles from roof-mounted speakers and echoes off sheer rocks down into the wooded valley below as his campaign van winds its way through snow gusts between mountain hamlets. “I’m Akihiro Asami and I’m running for mayor of Kitakata. How can we save our dying town?”

Chin whiskers newly shaved for the campaign, shaggy-haired and bespectacled like a young professor, Asami is an organic farmer and part-time sake brewer, a first-time candidate with no money or connections challenging an incumbent mayor from Japan’s increasingly dominant center-right party.

Like a growing minority across Japan, Asami is calling for a quiet revolution, energized by lessons from the meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant three years earlier.

Fifteen years ago, Asami left a promising career in international steel sales. He bought an old farmhouse and leased mountain rice paddies too remote for his elderly neighbors to cultivate. “I was worried he would never find a wife after that,” Asami’s father confided to me at Asami’s campaign headquarters. His father was relieved when Asami married Harumi. They were raising their two young daughters as self-sufficiently as they could, growing their own food, living simply, minimizing their energy footprint, building a community of like-minded small farmers at their community farmers market.

My wife and filmmaking partner Junko Kajino and I first met Asami after the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown ravaged northern Japan. We interviewed Asami on his farm for our documentary Uncanny Terrain. His was one of many families divided by the crisis.

Kitakata is 130 kilometers from the nuclear plant, in the northwest corner of Fukushima Prefecture. The radioactive plume that spiraled out from Fukushima Daiichi brushed Kitakata, elevating radiation here to levels similar to those in Tokyo. Harumi took their daughters to stay with her parents in central Japan, far from the contamination, while Asami remained behind to work the farm. He didn’t know when they would feel it was safe enough to reunite.

Junko and I were drawn to the resolve of farmers who made the choice to stay and cultivate. What gave them the resilience to carry on? Could they prove that Fukushima organic agriculture was anything more than an impossible contradiction? Could they keep their communities and way of life alive?

The people of Fukushima didn’t use the electricity generated at Fukushima Daiichi. It flowed south to feed Tokyo’s insatiable energy appetite. After the disaster, billions poured into northern Japan to rebuild areas shattered by earthquake and tsunami. Neighboring prefectures have recovered resoundingly. But many in Fukushima feel they’ve been abandoned, left to bear the stigma of radiation, collateral damage to Japan’s powerful nuclear industry that much of the country would rather forget.

It was a particularly harsh irony for organic farmers like Asami, who had worked so hard to keep their land and crops free from chemical pesticides and fertilizers, only to have contamination rained down on them. Many thought the meltdown would spell the end of Fukushima agriculture, and organic farming seemed especially vulnerable. Many gave up, moving away or retiring rather than take on the seemingly insurmountable challenge of cleaning their land and regaining the trust of a country made cynical by official misinformation about the crisis. The Japanese government was slow in warning the public about the meltdown and its attendant hazards, which led to ongoing widespread skepticism toward any assertions of relative safety.

Based on food contamination levels and human exposure rates in Europe after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, high levels of radiation were expected throughout the Fukushima food supply. It was clear early on that some foods produced near the plant—like fish, meat, milk, wild mushrooms and other wild plants, and some tree fruits—absorbed dangerously high levels of radiation and would have to be taken off the market. Rice, the staple of the Japanese diet, and thus the greatest potential source of internal radiation exposure, was the biggest concern.

It took months of grassroots efforts by food producers and activists as well as regulators before a robust testing system was implemented. Once the first harvest was in, the fall after the disaster, testing found that most Fukushima rice and vegetables showed no detectible radiation.

The reasons for this unexpectedly positive outcome are still being studied (as are the health implications of exposure to trace levels of radiation). Several apparent causes include the clay soil in Japan, which retains radiocesium—the most prevalent contaminant from Fukushima and Chernobyl—better than the sandy soil of northern Europe, keeping it out of plant roots; farmers’ diversion and filtering of mountain runoff, minimizing the recontamination of their fields; potassium fertilizer, which reduces crops’ uptake of cesium; and the abundance of organisms, particularly in organic soil, that absorb cesium before it reaches the crops.

The test results were gratifying for farmers, but the data alone has not been enough to regain many of the customers lost in the days after the disaster. It is up to farmers, the local food industry, and agricultural communities to show why to choose Fukushima food over alternatives grown in southern Japan or imported from places like China and the U.S.

In 2012, Harumi and the girls returned to Kitakata, opting for the uncertain risk of low-level radiation exposure over the stress of displacement and separation. Like other farmers we feature in Uncanny Terrain, the Asamis resolved to stand their ground, to fight for their embattled community, to find ways of growing safe and healthy food on land contaminated by nuclear fallout.

When he realized no one would challenge incumbent mayor Yamaguchi and his business-as-usual policies in the 2014 election, Asami concluded he’d have to step up himself. While Yamaguchi strategized about luring corporate investment to revive the anemic Kitakata economy, Asami called for a focus on incubating sustainable small business.

Asami and his fellows call for society to slow its hurried pace, use less energy, invest in agricultural diversity, and rely for example on locally grown firewood over the imported kerosene that heats most Japanese homes. Rather than closing poorly attended schools, they advocate turning them into community centers where retirees can teach children cultural and agricultural traditions.

For Asami’s compatriots, the way forward for post-meltdown Japan is not to reach for the long-lost commercial fervor of the go-go 80s, as the current administration would have it. Rather they want to draw on deeper roots, reviving their ancestors’ methods of utilizing indigenous, renewable natural resources, building an economy based on a more human scale, and strengthening community ties and self-sufficiency, living in harmony with the land that sustains them.

Cinema Jam: “Uncanny Terrain: The Documentary About the Devastation of Fukushima and Japanese Farming”

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eating boy

Marija Makeska interviews filmmakers Junko Kajino and Ed M. Koziarski in Cinema Jam:

Junko: “Just like most of the Japanese people, I was always afraid of radiation from our history of atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The aftermath of the atomic bombs that we learned gave me nightmares for long time. The Fukushima Daiichi plant’s melt down gave me strong fear and lost hope in my own country till I found some farmer’s blogs. Some active framers were trying to decontaminate their contaminated land in Fukushima organically. I could not believe that they can do that and even they could keep farming without getting sick. But I wanted to believe that they can do this. Only way to find out is to go there and record how they do.”

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Ten Thousand Things: Still Praying for Tohoku

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Asami campaign
Organic farmer and darkhorse mayoral candidate Asami Akihiro canvasses the mountain villages that ring Kitakata City.

Ten Thousand Things from Kyoto writes: “Uncanny Terrain follows mayoral candidacy of organic farmer in Fukushima.

Via filmmakers Junko Kajino and Ed M. Koziarski, at work on Uncanny Terrain, a documentary exploring the lives of organic farmers in Fukushima in the aftermath of 3/11…”

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We return to Fukushima to cover farmer’s campaign for mayor

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Akihiro Asami left his life as a city salaryman to raise his family on a self-sustaining organic farm in the mountains of Kitakata, on the western outskirts of Fukushima prefecture.

When the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant melted down in 2011, Akihiro’s wife Harumi evacuated with their two young daughters.  Akihiro stayed behind to continue farming.  In the face of public fears of Fukushima food, some of Akihiro’s neighbors were unable to keep their farms going and moved away.  Akihiro found his crops showed no detectible contamination from the fallout.  He worked to hold his community together.

In 2012, Harumi and the girls moved back to Kitakata, accepting the risk of exposure over the pain and disruption of separation and displacement.

This month, Akihiro announced that would run for mayor of Kitakata on a platform of local economies and natural agriculture as an alternative to the unsustainable systems that spawned the nuclear disaster.

In January we return to Fukushima to capture Akihiro’s dark horse campaign, a hopeful protest by one Fukushima farmer for a better way to live.

Please help us to continue our journey, complete the film, and share the stories of Akihiro and his fellow Fukushima farmers with the world.  We gratefully accept tax-deductible donations.

Uncanny Terrain 2013 Photo Set 2

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“Still ‘Praying for Japan’ — ‘Uncanny Terrain’ explores impact of 3/11 on Fukushima family farmers, animals, soil, & nuclear evacuees”

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Ten Thousand Things From Kyoto:

“This film is a must for all who are continuing to ‘pray for Japan’ — for all who support the safety of Japanese people and animals, the recovery of Tohoku, and the survival of traditional Japanese rural culture.”

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Fukushima 2013

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Fukushima Year Three: Renewal

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As we mark the second anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster, we present the new trailer for our in-progress documentary Uncanny Terrain, following the organic farmers of Fukushima fighting for the right to cultivate their contaminated land and preserve their traditional communities.

We plan to return to Fukushima this spring to capture where the farmers are two years later, as they continue their efforts to rebuild their lives and restore their farms.

Please help us cover the cost of making this trip and completing the film, by making a tax-deductible donation.

Seeds of Hope

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Since the disaster, 24-year-old Mizuho Sugeno has worked side-by-side with her parents on their organic farm in the tiny town of Towa in the foothills of the Abukuma Mountains.

Mizuho has founded the company Seeds of Hope, dedicated to Towa’s renewal.  Seeds of Hope distributes the Sugenos’ organic produce, demonstrates successful methods to prevent crops from absorbing radiation, and hosts guests to experience the idyllic farming lifestyle.

“After 3/11, Fukushima land was contaminated,” Mizuho says.  “Farms were abandoned. People were left behind.  Agriculture changed. By planting seeds, the power of the soil comes back.”

seedsofhope