Fukushima after the Earthquake

When I heard in March 2011, that a large earthquake had occurred off the coast of Fukushima, Japan, I was deeply shocked since I had spent a couple of years living in the area, and had gone back to visit a number of times since then. The earthquake was followed by a tsunami, which killed up to 20,000 people, and caused a disaster at a nuclear plant on the coast, leading to the release of large amounts of radiation. The crisis continued for a number of weeks, and even now is not resolved. I had lived away from the coast, so the people I knew were not affected by the tsunami, but were only 30 or 40 miles from the nuclear plant. I was able to call the day after the quake, and found out that my friends were OK, but as I followed the situation with the nuclear plant, and watched videos of the tsunami destroying whole villages, I felt a sense of helplessness given the distance and the scale of the tragedy. However, the following year I got a call from a temple carpenter friend, who was overwhelmed with work repairing temples damaged in the earthquake. He wondered if I wanted to come over and help, so I working with him for 6 weeks, which was as long as I could stay away from my family. I was therefore not exactly a first responder, and my contribution to the overall recovery was pretty modest, but I did really want to help in some way, and to see how people were coping with the situation.

I was invited to come to Japan by a priest whom I met at Washington, DC's Kashin Zendo around 1975. His name was Kohsho Nakazawa, and he had just finished his training in the monastery and was traveling before going home to take over his father's temple. I don't think he really expected me to take him up on his invitation, but I started to get interested in the idea of going to Japan and took a few Japanese language classes. Since I was doing carpentry, I also became interested in Japanese architecture and carpentry. When I wrote him a year or two later, it turned out that he was in the process of constructing a new building, so I wrote that I would love to help work on it. The master carpenter was apparently very skeptical, so he finally wrote that this wouldn't be possible, but I could come and watch. I tried to get there for the raising of the building, but to my disappointment I arrived a day too late, after the frame was already up and the ridge raising ceremony had just ended. I remember being totally jet lagged after my flight and a five hour train trip from Tokyo, and also my culture shock at realizing that I was in a small city in northern Japan where there were no other foreigners and only the priest spoke any English. I was very impressed with the frame of the building, however, with all the joints which I had only seen in books fitting perfectly and the posts planed almost as smooth as glass. I met the master carpenter, Shoji Yoshida, and within a week he had bought me tools and I was working with the carpenters.

It was lonely and difficult at first, but it was a life changing experience. I was lucky to live in a place where I got to learn traditional carpentry and be part of ordinary Japanese life, and to become friends with the carpenter as well as the priest and his family. I didn't speak much Japanese, and most of the carpenters spoke a local dialect, so most of the time I had no idea what was going on. However, the carpenters were patient, and at first I spent a lot of time sweeping up, holding one end of a beam, or running wood through machines. But practically every piece of wood that went into the building needed to be planed by hand, so I gradually learned how to sharpen and use a Japanese plane. I started out preparing wood for the highest and least visible places and then the inside of closets. After many weeks, I was finally able to get a paper thin shaving as long as the piece of wood and as wide as the plane, and eventually was allowed to do the plane all the boards for the ceiling of the main room. I came back home for six months, but then returned to work with the carpenter on another temple nearby, and ended up living with his family in a village in the mountains. Eventually I went to Kamakura to study Zen, but would go back to Fukushima whenever I had a chance to visit or help the carpenter. I also met and became friends with a younger carpenter, Hatsuo Kanomata, who was working for Yoshida. A year or two after I returned home to Washington, DC, Yoshida, his son Akio, and my friend Kanomata came to DC for several months and helped me build a building. After that, I wasn't able to get back to Japan for several years, but finally got a chance to go back and see everyone, and help Kanomata, now a master temple carpenter himself, with a job that he was working on. I was joined by my girlfriend Heidi Welsh, and we went back a year or two later again after we got married. We also went back when one of our daughters was 2 years old and the other 2 months old and I could helped Kanomata with an another addition to Kohsho's temple, and got to stay in the temple that I had helped build 20 years before. My first teacher, Yoshida, unfortunately died some time after that, but I went back to help Kanomata again in 2008, and was joined by Heidi and our daughters, now 11 and 9. In 2010, Kanomata's wife came to visit us in Maryland with their 13 year old granddaughter, who is the same age as our older daughter.

When I arrived back in Fukushima in August, 2012, most of the obvious damage had been cleaned up, and on the surface things looked pretty normal. Fukushima Prefecture is now connected to Tokyo by a bullet train, so you can get there in about an hour and a half, but it is still mostly rural. Many people grow their own rice and vegetables in small plots, and there are many peach and apple orchards, with some fishing along the coast. It is a beautiful area, but has been losing population for many years, as young people go to Tokyo to find better jobs. I am sure that many people welcomed the idea of a nuclear plant with good paying local jobs, even though the plant had a history of problems. Kohsho's temple, Fuoji, was mostly repaired, except for the heavy decorative tile ridge which had come down in the earthquake, crushing a storage building. Kohsho told me that the earthquake had been so severe he had been unable to stand up for five minutes, and showed me pictures of the temple right after the earthquake. All the temple buildings had survived, but most of the doors and windows had fallen out, the clay and straw walls were badly damaged, and the gravestones had all fallen over. It was still really cold when the quake occurred, with snow on the ground, and they had no heat or water for weeks. In spite of the damage to the roads, Kanomata had loaded his truck with water and come to see how they were the day after the quake. He then managed to find some plywood to start boarding things up and then worked for several months repairing the building.

I got a chance to talk to a number of people about their experiences, and was very impressed by their toughness and resilience. The quake hit in the afternoon, so most people were at work or school, so most of the people I talked to just tried to get home and see if there houses were still standing and if the other members of the family were OK. The building codes are pretty strict, so there were relatively few deaths from the earthquake, although the carpenter's son, Akio, who is now an architect, told me he was on the sixth floor of an unfinished building when the quake hit, and wasn't sure he would survive. Nobody really had time to think about the tsunami until they started hearing the news. On the coast, people were aware that a tsunami often follows an earthquake, but no one expected a tsunami this size, that in some places 45 feet high and going a mile inland. Then came the news of the disaster at the nuclear plant. Apparently none of the planning had anticipated a quake of this magnitude, so the tsunami overwhelmed the seawalls and knocked out the generators for auxilliary cooling. The plant was in danger of a meltdown and catastrophic release of radiation, and was saved only through the courage and desperate improvisations of those working on the site.

The village where Kanomata lives is about 30 miles from the nuclear plant, and Sukagawa, the city where Kohsho's temple is located is about 40 miles. Fortunately there is a mountain between them and the nuclear plant, and in general the wind was blowing the other way, so the radiation levels weren't as high as in some other areas further from the plant. Kanomata initially took his family to Sukagawa, but then discovered that the radiation levels there were actually higher, so they returned home. The Japanese government established a 12 mile exclusion zone around the plant, and his town became one of the main resettlement areas. The radiation levels have dropped, but the anxieties continue, most recently with ground water getting into the damaged reactors, becoming highly contaminated, and ending up in the ocean. This was covered up by Tokyo Electric Power, the utility in charge of the plant, which was managing the cleanup. While I was there, a loudspeaker in the village still announced the radiation levels every day, and the daily readings for every town were on the television along with the weather.

There is now anger towards both the government and the utility, and a distrust of the information they provide. A number of villages near the plants are abandoned, and their population is scattered at this point. Many wish to return, but have no idea when and if this will be possible. Unlike the US, most people in the area have lived in the same places for many generations, and someone is always expected to stay there and maintain the family graves, so this type of dislocation has been extremely difficult, especially for the elderly. Many families with children are also worried about the effects of radiation, and many of those who can are opting to try to start a new life, often as far as possible from nuclear plants. Many schools have therefore been forced to close or consolidate, which has accelerated the trend towards a graying population. In Japan in general, almost a quarter of the population is now over 65, but I am sure it is much higher in Fukushima now. The rebuilding has created a boom for anyone connected with construction, but most people were unable to harvest their rice and vegetables last year, and concerns about radiation are a long term problem for farmers and fisherman since people now avoid products from the area.

Kanomata was working on a small Zen temple in the countryside that had also been badly damaged in the earthquake. It had a heavy tile roof, and was leaning about five inches out of plumb, but over several weeks he had managed to pull it back into position and brace the walls. He was now building an addition to the rear of the temple, so I worked with him in his shop preparing the posts and beams for a couple of weeks, and then helping him put it up and get it under roof. Kanomata was working with a carpenter called Ishii, who was about five feet tall and 70 years old, but worked at a pace that I found hard to keep up with. I was coming from Alaska, so I had trouble getting used to the 100 degree heat, but eventually managed to get adjusted. Japanese carpentry is a discipline which you spend your whole life trying to master, so it was great to have another chance to work with someone like Kanomata. It was also good to get to stay with him and Kohsho and see their families and other people whom I have known for many years. Everyone was older, and remarked on how much older I looked, which helped bring home the truth of impermanence, but also made me grateful for these lifelong relationships. I turned 65 while I was there, so Kanomata had a party for me and invited all his neighbors, which was certainly a memorable birthday.

While I don't feel that I played a major role in the rebuilding of Fukushima, I am really glad I went. It was a great experience for me and I think people liked having someone from outside coming to work with them and take part in their daily lives. When talking about Zen and service, the Zen teacher Jeff Shore quoted an interview in a Japanese newspaper with one of the workers at the nuclear plant. When asked about his motivation for entering the damaged reactors right after the accident, he said something like someone had to do it, so he became that person. What I did was considerably less heroic, but I did feel a satisfaction that I had done what could, and that people deeply appreciated it.

Fuoji, in Sukagawa, Fukushima,  the temple I had worked on 30 years before, right after the earthquake

Daiku Woodworking