I took the train for a four day trip to Fukushima. I visited pastors and friends, met with an elder lady who is one of 1470 people suing the Japanese government for damages due to the nuclear disaster, visited the Asian Rural Institute which has long been a partner of Global Ministries, and sat and listened as young mothers shared with me their concerns about living in present day Fukushima. It was a pilgrimage of sorts - listening for God's still small voice in the midst of great turmoil.
The golden rice fields tell us that fall has arrived. Soon the farmers will be harvesting their produce. Three and a half years have passed since nuclear explosions, and we are relieved to discover that most produce is safe to eat. I was told that vegetables and rice do not show signs of absorbing much of the radiation in the soil. Only mushrooms and shiitake, mountain vegetables called “sansei,” and river fish that feed on moss show signs of high radiation. So the fourth harvest season since the disaster is here. After three years of careful measurements, most local produce in Fukushima is safe to eat. That is reason enough to celebrate! Yet, major problems still haunt their lives; constant high levels of radiation in the air, and the ongoing troubles with the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant site.
This disaster is far from being under control. What to do with the contaminated water that keeps making its way to the Pacific Ocean? Where to store contaminated soil and debris? The numbers of children now diagnosed with thyroid cancer is at 103. Cleansing efforts to bring radiation levels down by removing the top soil are fruitless. Yet, the government is eager to repopulate the area. Route 6, the road that runs north-south along the coast, was just reopened on September 15th. This road passes less than a mile from the Fukushima reactors! More areas are declared safe for return. The government has plans to build new schools and facilities in an effort to encourage people to come back. I can’t help but think of another nation which is eager to establish “settlements” as a matter of national policy.
It is hard to convey the sense of helplessness and despair that some Fukushima residents face. Large powers are in place to bulldoze forward with “life as usual,” and those who dissent are treated as though their voices do not count. But the pervading inner landscape for all people in Fukushima is one of doubt and fear. Not wanting to think of a worse-case scenario most people refuse to speak of radiation. It is not easy to speak of hope with people who have been robbed of their past, and are not able to envision their own future. Time is a series of nows. One is reminded of Albert Camus’ “The Plague” where the author wrestles with how to live and find meaning in a time of crisis. People are captive to the moment, unable to move beyond into the richness of life.
It is in such a landscape though that I encounter sacred space – what Abraham Heschel called “A Cathedral of Time.” One morning I sat across the table from two young mothers who had voluntarily left their homes to take up residence where radiation levels are lower. They were now working as volunteer staff at the Aizu Radiation Information Center. They shared with me their struggles to keep their children safe from the invisible harms of radiation. They told me how difficult it was to leave, and how they had been the only ones in their neighborhood to flee. One had left her husband because he had a different understanding about the dangers of radiation. As I sat there focused on their lives, they had countless stories to tell about the lonely journey that had brought them to the Center. Their inner struggles are ongoing because in their heart of hearts, one day they would really like to go home.
Knowing that Japanese people in this part of Japan especially have an aversion to calling attention themselves, I put to them a very personal question. “I know that people here do not open up to strangers so readily. What does it feel like to share in such a personal way with us?” They responded by saying; “People who come to this Center are people who want to listen. We would be too afraid to open up to anyone we meet on the street.” I realized that they had found a sanctuary where they felt safe, and where they could express themselves with trust. And in that moment they had given me their trust.
My pilgrimage to Fukushima will continue – hoping that through our shared presence together God will speak to us in a still and small voice saying; “Do not lose hope.”
Jeffrey Mensendiek serves with the Council on Cooperative Mission, assigned to Kwansei Gakuin University,on faculty of the theology department, and a chaplain of the Center for Religious Activities. His appointment is made possible by your gifts to Disciples' Mission Fund, Our Churches Wider Mission, and your special gifts.