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.

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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Uncanny Terrain 2013 Photo Set 2

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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.

Screening footage July 19 with Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio

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Uncanny Terrain codirector Ed M. Koziarski will screen work-in-progress footage and talk about the film with my alma mater Antioch College‘s Global Seminar on Energy, Thursday, July 19 at 1 p.m. at the Little Art Theatre in Yellow Springs, OH.  It’s free and open to the public.  RSVP here.

Rio+20: Four Fukushima Farmers

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This video, capturing the diverse views of four Fukushima activist farmers, screens beginning June 16 in the Rio+20 United Nations Sustainable Development Conference, where one of our main subjects, Seiji Sugeno, director of the Fukushima Organic Farmers Network, is presenting.

Our results are in.

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After spending 30 of the past 55 weeks in Fukushima, Japan, living in places contaminated by nuclear fallout, visiting even more highly contaminated places, drinking the water and eating the food, we finally got an answer to the question we are most often asked about the making of our documentary Uncanny Terrain: just how contaminated had we, ourselves, become?

Just before the end of our latest Fukushima adventure, the Fukushima City NGO Citizens Radioactivity Measuring Station managed to squeeze us in during an unusual lull in the stream of locals waiting to get their bodies checked for radiation.  First we watched a group of local ladies receive CRMS’s mix of examination and counseling, and heard their tearful stories of separation from their evacuated grandchildren and other stresses of life in the shadow of the nuclear meltdown.  Then it was our turn.

One at a time, we changed into standard-issue robes and sat in sensor-equipped chairs built for the Chernobyl disaster, to have our bodies scanned for Cesium-137 and -134, the two most plentiful radionuclides released by the earthquake- and tsunami-triggered explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in March, 2011. (Iodine-131, blamed for a rise in thyroid cancers after the Chernobyl meltdown, has a half-life of only eight days, and is not now a significant presence).

The results: Junko showed 462 Becquerels of Cs-137 with a margin of error of 185 Bq, and no detected Cs-134, with a margin of error of 159 Bq.  As for me, with margins of 238 and 204 Becquerels respectively, I showed “not detected” for either radionuclide.

These results were puzzling for a few reasons.  Junko and I were together constantly during our time in Fukushima, eating the same food, generally considered the main source of exposure.  So why were her results higher than mine?  Was it simply my greater size and correspondingly higher margin of error?  Or that she went hiking each morning?  Or that, like many Japanese, she could not resist wild vegetables although they are a known contamination source?

And why did Junko test positive for Cs-137 and not Cs-134?  Equal amounts of the two were released by the meltdown.  With a half-life of two years, Cs-134 should now be present at about 70% of the level of Cs-137, which has a half-life of 30 years.

By comparison, the cattle rancher Masami Yoshizawa, who has defied the government and kept his cows alive 14 km from the nuclear plant, last July tested at 7,000 Becquerels total.  This spring, a second test showed his contamination had dropped by 90% to about 700 Becquerels, just 50% more than Junko, though he’s been living in the nuclear exclusion zone for much of the past year, working in the contaminated pasture with no protection.

As we’ve experienced throughout the production of Uncanny Terrain, it seems that the more we learn, the less we realize we really know.  For reasons I still don’t entirely understand, CRMS consultant and University of Tokyo physicist Ryu Hayano says that in the not uncommon case that a subject tests positive for Cs-137 but not Cs-134, the results should be considered not detected overall.  The Whole Body Counters were designed for the much higher levels of contamination commonly experienced after the Chernobyl disaster, and may not be sensitive enough to properly measure the comparatively lower levels caused by the Fukushima crisis.

But even taking the numbers at face value, how great a health concern is it to have 462 Becquerels of Cs-137 in your body?  It depends on whom you ask.  Reading the same data, different scientists offer opposite interpretations of the health risk of low-level, long-term radiation exposure.

CRMS co-founder Ayu Marumori told us that after the crisis, she consulted with a number of doctors about the danger posed by the nuclear fallout.  The doctors would all answer with certainty, some saying the radiation was harmless, others that it was certain to be deadly.  It was only when she found a doctor who confessed that he wasn’t sure, that Marumori felt she had found a prognosis she could trust.  The data are plentiful from Chernobyl, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, the Manhattan Project, and other cases of exposure from nuclear weapons testing.  But the interpretation is so politicized that the conclusions one draws tend to be ideologically rather than empirically driven.

Still Marumori and CRMS continue their work, providing people with data of admittedly limited value until the testing technology can be refined.  In such a vacuum of understanding, a little bit of knowledge is precious—at least so the thinking goes.  More importantly, they encourage their clients to be conscious about how their lifestyle impacts their health, and to take available steps to minimize their exposure.  Medical statistician Yasuo Ohashi, who founded a mobile clinic in eastern Fukushima, predicts that the biggest health consequence of the nuclear disaster will be from the rise in diabetes cases, brought on by the inactivity of people living in shelters, staying indoors, eating more processed foods, and the stress of evacuation and fear.

This is how life is for the vast majority of people in Fukushima who have been unable or unwilling to evacuate.  They go about their days, always under a cloud of uncertainty about what risks they face from their air, water and food.  This is true to some extent wherever we live.  But in Fukushima the knowledge of this uncertainty is palpable, ever-present, a fact of life for the foreseeable future.