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.
Seiji Sugeno at the Fukushima Organic Farmers' Network's café Orgando in Tokyo
Asami Girls at Yamato Farmers Market
The Asamis' kitten. No Rice No Life
The Asamis at the Yamato Farmers Market
Hiroshi Hasegawa's horses are part of his plan for an off-the-grid farm in Yamato.
Umbrella left behind by prior residents of Hiroshi Hasegawa's 150-year-old house.
Yamato Farmers Market
This is Serbian bicyclist Milosav Grujicic's third summer working on Seiji Sugeno's organic farm.
Koichi Nemoto has one of the only operating farms in mostly-abandoned Odaka, 12 km from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.
86-year-old Teruo Yasukawa has planted his third rice crop since the nuclear disaster, in Minami-Soma where most cultivation is banned, but he hasn't been able to fully attend to his fields since fainting in the spring.
This past January, while most participants at the Global Conference for a Nuclear Power Free World in Yokohama were angrily demanding that the government relocate endangered Fukushima citizens to safety, a small delegation of organic farmers had a different message to share. They had no intention of leaving their family land, they said, and as long as radiation levels remained within prescribed safety limits, others were urged to continue consuming Fukushima crops in support of the prefecture’s revitalization.
We were prepared to talk our way past a police checkpoint—or play dumb, in my case. But we drove right over the border unaccosted. 13 months after the tsunami, the fields remain strewn with twisted cars and the insides of ravaged houses. Cracked and roofless buildings stand untouched since the earthquake.
12 km up the Pacific coast from the still-smoldering Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, Minami-Soma was cleaved in two. The north side of the city remains populated, while the south end was abandoned to the nuclear exclusion zone. That is, until April 16, when, for the first time, evacuees were allowed to return home without a special permit, though they still can’t spend the night.
The Nemotos had an organic farm here for 12 years, spreading sustainable practices to their neighbors. Mrs. Nemoto lost cousins in the tsunami. They evacuated first to Fukushima City, where radiation is twice as high as it is here, and later to adjacent Soma, where they live with their son’s family. The trauma of relocation has left their teenage granddaughter suffering sleepwalking and seizures.
Koichi Nemoto is determined to resume farming his evacuated land. He’s working with a team of researchers to test various experimental methods of preventing crops from absorbing radioactive cesium. He can grow anything, he says proudly.
It’s the complete opposite for their next-door neighbors, also named Nemoto (the name of the neighborhood, too). The neighbor Nemotos have no desire to move back, they tell us as they revisit their abandoned home, and they consider cultivating their fields a lost cause. They just want the government, or the power company, anybody, to buy their property, so they can move on.
If you were a Fukushima farmer, would you stay?
This was just one of the provocative questions students asked us, often in eloquent English, after we screened preview footage of our documentary Uncanny Terrain at Junko’s high school alma mater Inakita in Nagano in central Japan.
I answered that in the U.S., it’s relatively easy for us to pick up and go at the first sign of crisis or opportunity. I’m a proud Chicagoan, sure, but the sense of identification the people in Fukushima feel for the land is on a whole other level. One of my personal goals for this project is to better understand that sense of attachment.
I only learned later when she translated her answer for me that Junko said she would probably stay.
What makes a person decide whether to move on or stick out a disaster whose repercussions won’t be fully understood for decades?
How can these two families of Nemotos, living side by side, have such contradictory responses to the disaster?
Among the dozens of farmers we’ve met in the past year, we have seen a particular commitment by organic growers to stay and cultivate. This is counterintuitive on its face. These farmers, who have worked hardest to keep their crops free of contamination, are now the most perseverant in the face of the most insidious contamination they’ve ever encountered. But on another level it makes perfect sense. The commitment they have made to protect and perfect their land is not something they can walk away from, no matter the odds.
The organic farmers of Fukushima have spent the past year coping not only with the contamination of their ancestral land with radioactive fallout from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, but also bureaucratic barriers to compensation, inconsistent guidelines from a government scurrying to project an illusion of normality, scarcity of accurate information and equipment to understand the contamination, hostility from a frightened public, and a steep drop in sales that threatens to undermine the regional economy and shatter their way of life.
The farmers have steadily educated themselves about the threat of radiation and how to cope with it, adapting traditional methods, acquiring testing equipment and incorporating experimental techniques to prevent their crops from absorbing cesium and try to decontaminate the land with minimum loss of its fertility. But will their efforts be enough to keep organic farming alive in northeast Japan?
After spending five months in 2011 following the farmers through the growing season, filmmakers Junko Kajino and Ed M. Koziarski are back in Japan to capture the second year of the nuclear crisis for our documentary Uncanny Terrain. We thank you for joining us on this journey. And we hope that you will continue to support us by spreading the word about this project, and making a tax-deductible contribution to our IndieGoGo campaign, which runs through May 1.
In March we held a series of preview screenings in New Jersey and Massachusetts, with lively and thoughtful audience discussions after each screening. We can provide preview footage for your school, organization, or venue, and either travel there or join you via teleconference. Please write us to inquire.
Michigan screening, save the date: we will screen preview footage at an exhibition of photography from the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami, April 20 at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Details TBA.