“We all have a natural tendency to think that somehow or other, we will be all right. Like everyone else, I never thought that I would find myself in this situation, but when the nuclear accident happened, it made me realise how much I had taken for granted.”
- ProfileTatsuko Okawara
- Tatsuko Okawara is an organic farmer based in Tamura city, Fukushima, since 1985. After the nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi plant almost destroyed her livelihood, she started “Ichi-kara Ya”, a company that delivers fresh food and vegetables directly to customers while publishing the detected radiation level of every product. In 2013, Okawara went on to open “Esperi”, a small shop and café. When she isn’t busy farming, she also puts on original puppet shows together with her husband Shin.
Tatsuko Okawara was at home with her family in the city of Tamura, 40 km to the west of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, when the Great East Japan Earthquake struck on March 11th 2011. As an organic farmer, she despaired in the immediate aftermath of the nuclear accident. As she told reporters at the time, “I don’t use a single drop of pesticide, not a single pellet of chemical fertiliser. But now there are particles of radioactive dust falling on my fields.” However, she vowed to keep doing the work she loved, saying: “I won’t give up. I’m certain that one day I’ll be able to harvest here again.” She has spent the last ten years making good on her promise.
Remorse leading to a new resolve
Amid the shocking events of March 2011, what shook Okawara hardest on a personal level was not the earthquake and its endless aftershocks, or even the explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi plant and the invisible threat of radiation. As a former anti-nuclear campaigner, she felt a sense of personal responsibility. “I knew of the potential dangers at Fukushima Daiichi, but I’d given up fighting against it.”
“After the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, radioactivity was detected even in Japan. My eldest daughter was only 2 months old at the time, so naturally this was very frightening. Fukushima was already home to several nuclear power plants back then, which prompted me to learn more about nuclear power and ultimately get involved in the anti-nuclear movement. But as time passed, bringing up five children as well as looking after the farm eventually left me with no spare time, and I gradually drifted away from the movement.”
This time, she decided, she wouldn’t make the same mistake again. She determined to do whatever she could to stand up to nuclear power in Japan and around the world. Just as the Chernobyl disaster saw a wave of anti-nuclear sentiment that peaked and then faded away, Fukushima Daiichi is already starting to drift from the public consciousness, even though the events were so much closer to home.
“Right after the accident, a lot of people developed a tremendous fear of nuclear power. That was only 10 years ago, and over the past 10 years, I’ve seen with my own eyes how much everybody has suffered. People talk about the ‘weathering’ of memories, but I know we mustn’t let this happen. Just as the survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki went on to tell their stories in their own words, I decided I would become a ‘story-teller’ to keep the memories alive.”
Recovering confidence as a producer
Okawara was ahead of her time when she started growing vegetables without the use of agricultural chemicals back in the 1980s, a time when the word ‘organic’ had barely entered the public consciousness. Deciding whether or not to carry on farming on fields potentially tainted with radioactive fallout was therefore a matter of great inner conflict. She describes how she experienced an almost crushing sense of guilt: “My goal has always been to produce the healthiest food possible, and now I was in a position where continuing to farm could mean I end up producing something harmful. That would be the same as selling poison to make ends meet”.
“When I made the decision to start farming again after the disaster, some people were very harsh in their criticism, telling me I was wrong to be branding my produce ‘chemical free’ despite the radioactive contamination. If I’d actually been in favour of the nuclear plant then maybe it would be understandable, but that wasn’t the case, so it really stung.”
In April 2011, the month after the nuclear accident, Okawara received a request through a friend to participate in a survey of radioactive contamination run by the environmental group Greenpeace. She agreed to let them measure the levels of radioactivity in the crops she had grown. When she was told that there was a possibility the land would still be suitable for farming, she felt a ray of hope for the first time since the accident. Okawara was able to calculate the actual amount of radioactivity in her produce, using guidelines Germany put in place after Chernobyl, which permit a daily food intake of up 8 Bq/kg (Becquerel per kilogram) for adults and up to 4 Bq/kg for children. She discovered that any radiation exposure from eating her food would be negligible, and could be reduced even further by thorough cooking.
“Even back in 2011, readings above 10 Bq were very rare. Fortunately for me, there is a mountain range between my farm and the Fukushima Daiichi plant. As we got a clearer picture of how the radiation had dispersed, it became clear that Tamura had got off lightly in terms of soil contamination. On top of that, I researched ways of removing contamination from the ground. It’s impossible to put into words how relieved I was when I realised that farming would still be possible.”
Okawara assumed that after the Fukushima Daiichi accident, the government would make it mandatory to publish radiation levels for food products. But no such policy was ever implemented, and instead Fukushima’s farmers found themselves in a situation where they were unable to find a buyer for their produce, even if testing showed it to be safe. Okawara herself sold vegetables and eggs directly to consumers, but in the wake of the disaster her sales dropped precipitously to one-third of their pre-accident levels, putting the future of her business in jeopardy. This led her to come up with a new approach, one that sought to stop Fukushima’s agricultural community from dying a slow death. It was a new departure for her after the business she had painstakingly built up collapsed practically overnight. For her new venture, she decided on the name ‘Ichi-kara Ya’, a play on the Japanese word ichi-kara, meaning to start from the beginning.
Her new strategy was to test the radiation level of every item she sold, and sell only fully traceable products with test results clearly displayed. In her opinion, complete openness was the only way to fight back against reputational damage and win back public trust, and thus hopefully avoid becoming another Fukushima farmer forced to throw in the towel. Although rice and other produce from Fukushima were screened* before they reached the market, the results of this screening were never printed on the packaging and so were out of reach of the consumer.
With the help of an old friend and the assistance of a support group, Okawara managed to get access to a radiation detector. In the past few years, she says, radiation levels high enough to be register a detection* have been all but unheard of. Although she acknowledges that some people may feel uneasy even at the sight of the words ‘not detected’, Okawara is adamant that this information should always be provided.
“It is important for us to be reminded of the nuclear accident and its consequences in our daily lives. Some people might say they don’t want to hear about it any more, but on the other hand there is now a new generation growing up oblivious to the disaster. If young children see words like ‘Cesium’ and ‘Becquerel’ printed on food packaging, maybe they will ask their parents what they mean, and through that they can start to learn about what happened in Fukushima. A lot of people here keep their feelings to themselves most of the time, but I don’t think you will find a single person affected by the Fukushima Daiichi disaster who doesn’t still harbour resentment, sadness, and anger. If we don’t make sure these events are kept visible, it’s almost like denying they ever happened.”
Okawara’s customers stretch far beyond the confines of Fukushima prefecture. From Hokkaido in the north to Kobe in the west, every month she dispatches fresh produce to customers who want to show their support for Fukushima’s farmers. Although sales remain far lower than they were before the accident and some old customers have dropped off the radar, Okawara smiles as she reflects on the people she has met since setting out on her new journey.
A role model for self-sufficiency in food and power
In 2013, Okawara and her husband Shin opened ‘Esperi’, a roadside shop selling bread and farm produce in the neighbouring town of Miharu. Esperi is the Esperanto word for ‘hope’, reflecting the couple’s wish for the shop to be a source of optimism and energy. Esperi has a cafe space where customers can eat and drink, as well as a small hall that can be used for meetings or exhibitions.
“Before the earthquake, I’d never thought of running my own shop, but when we were reeling from the nuclear accident, we needed something to do just to keep ourselves from going crazy. If we didn’t have something hopeful to focus on, we just wouldn’t have known how to move forward. So we threw caution to the wind and borrowed enough money to build the shop, and that gave us something to hold onto.”
In 2016, as part of “Solarize Fukushima”, a joint project by the Miharu community and Greenpeace, the Okawaras raised enough money through crowdfunding to install 40 solar panels on the roof of Esperi. Thus was born the ‘Esperi solar plant’, a citizen-run power plant. Any excess power is sold back to the grid, while any deficit is paid for. The shop’s power needs are almost entirely met by the solar panels. The Okawaras have gone on to install solar panels and a storage battery at their home, too, and are now fully self-sufficient in energy.
“I started farming because I wanted to eat food that I had grown myself. In the same way, as long as we keep an eye on how much we use, we can be self-sufficient in electricity too. We don’t have to rely on power transmitted from a distant power station. The world is becoming increasingly unpredictable, but being self-sufficient in food and energy makes us very resilient. It might not be easy, but it’s certainly possible. I’d recommend anybody to give it a try, even if it’s just a few vegetables in a planter or one or two solar panels.”
Study groups from around Japan as well as overseas often drop by at Esperi to hear Okawara’s stories and learn more about the accident at Fukushima Daiichi. Built by farmers who have faced radioactive contamination and have gone on to produce their own renewable energy, Esperi is an important symbol of both the past, but also a signpost to the future.
Raising awareness through storytelling
As well as owning the farm and Esperi, the Okawaras have also run a husband-and-wife puppet theatre for the past 36 years. They have performed their shows at least 2,500 times, at nurseries, schools, and public events. After the Fukushima Daiichi accident, Okawara wrote a new three-part play that attempts to raise awareness of the issues surrounding nuclear power. Each of the three parts has its own theme, namely the history of nuclear power (the past), the accident at Fukushima and its repercussions (the present), and the shift to renewable energy (the future). Friends and acquaintances help to organise venues, and she has now performed the play many times both inside and outside Fukushima prefecture. Okawara says that one of the joys of puppet theatre is the simple format, which makes the stories accessible to people of all age groups and even different nationalities.
The “present” chapter deals with the effects of the radiation leak, and is based on the real-life experiences of friends. Okawara says she wants to make it her ‘life’s work’ to continue telling their story.
“My friends were mushroom farmers who grew wonderful shiitake mushrooms for many years, but because of the radioactive fallout from Fukushima Daiichi, they were forced to give it up. They ended up having to throw away 60,000 shiitake logs and four tons of harvested mushrooms. Everything they had worked so hard to build up over 35 years was suddenly classed as radioactive waste. Some livestock farmers were forced to slaughter their animals, while others had to abandon the fields they had worked all their lives. There’s no end of tragic stories. I wanted to use the story of my friends the shiitake mushroom growers as an example symbolising all of these tales of loss. As a farmer who’s suffered because of the accident, and also as an artist with my puppet theatre, I hope I can pass on the story of what happened to us all.”
Food producers have been among the worst affected by the nuclear accident, but in the face of woefully inadequate support from the government and authorities, they have been left to come up with their own ideas to bring them back from the brink of despair as best they can. Many have been forced to abandon the profession that defined them. Okawara is concerned that as time passes, more and more of us are falling into the trap of believing that something like that could never happen to them.
“We all have a natural tendency to think that somehow or other, we will be all right. Like everyone else, I never thought that I would find myself in this situation, but when the nuclear accident happened, it made me realise how much I had taken for granted. As long as nuclear power plants are running, there’s no guarantee that the same thing couldn’t happen to you. I hope people will come to realise that this is something that affects us all.”
The testimony of Fukushima’s residents is vital to supplement our own limited imaginations. One day, it just might stop us from finding ourselves in the same situation.
- *Detectable limit: approx. 10 bq/kg. Measurement taken for 1800 seconds/kg. Varies slightly according to weight and density of sample.