November 17, 2017

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Fukushima Storyteller Yoshiko Aoki: almost 6 years after 3.11, her sheer experience & generally shared voices of Fukushima

There are stories to be passed down. What happened on that day, things that they lost, and the hometown that has been transformed. Yoshiko Aoki is an organizer of the storytelling group of Tomioka town in the Fukushima Prefecture. They started their activities two years after the accident in order to keep commemorating the aftermath of the accident.  The Storytelling group consists of 18 storytellers at the moment, who are all survivors of the nuclear disaster. Among them, there is a 20 year old woman who was a highschool student in 2011, and lost her parents in the disaster.

Aoki has not only told the stories in Japan, she has also been invited to tell the stories abroad in France, Switzerland and England.

Her stories have echoes of old Japanese tales and poems. It makes me wonder if their stories will be passed down to many generations in Fukushima. When a great amount of time passes and the stories become one of many old Japanese tales, a child of Fukushima who hears these stories may feel lucky to be living safely, when in the past there had been a time when it was unsafe.


Moderator (Ian Thomas Ash): I would like to call this press conference to order. Today’s press conference is with Yoshiko Aoki, the Fukushima storyteller. And I would like to just show you a few items that are not in the press release. Ms. Aoki is originally from Koriyama, and she was a principal at Tomioka High School from 2004 to 2008 and she’s been travelling all around the world to Switzerland, Wales to share about her work as a storyteller. Today she is here to share with the Japanese audience about her work, so without further adieu I would like to turn over the floor to her.

Yoshiko Aoki:  Hello, everybody.

My name is Yoshiko Aoki.

I live in Koriyama city.

Now, you can see the map on the screen. This is a map of Fukushima.

In the middle of the map, is where Koriyama city is located.

Today, I came from Koriyama city.

The moderator introduced me, as I am an organizer of storytelling group.

Although we have limited time, I would like to make my best to tell our story about Fukushima.

First of all, I would like everybody here to remind you that I am not a politician, or a philosopher, or a professor. I’m just an ordinary citizen.

I’m a retired teacher. I used to be a principal of a high school. Today, I would like to speak as an ordinary citizen.

On March 11th, 2011, I was in Koriyama city.

As you can see on the screen.

On the 16th of March, I rushed to evacuees’ shelter in Koriyama for Tomioka town people who had evacuated from Tomioka.

Tomioka is here. The town is here.

90 kilometers from Koriyama city.

In our storytelling activity, we put great emphasis on focusing on the story of each individual of the town people, their experiences and their feelings.

My story today here is mainly to explain about the current situation about challenges people face in Tomioka town in Futaba district in Fukushima.

It will be he mainly a story of Tomioka, but I believe that the story is very common among all other areas in Fukushima.

On March 11th, 2:46 pm, we were hit by a big earthquake. The size of intensity was upper six. Then we were hit by a big Tsunami with the height of 21 meters.

This is a picture of  the Tsunami.

This is the scene right after the Tsunami came to the shore.  

The height of the wave was 21 meters.

Soon after that Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant exploded.  Due to the accident around 80,000 people are still living in evacuee life.

Tomioka town’s 15,000 people have scattered around all over Japan for six years. Now no one can live in Tomioka.

 In the early morning of March 12th, 2011, the evacuation order was issued to the town people. They fled the town by driving a car. At that time everybody thought that they could go back to home soon.

They had to leave everything behind.

Homes they loved so much.

Rice paddies and crop fields they cared about so much.









Since then, six years have passed. The town’s community is totally broken. Family members are separated.

In this six years, over 300 people died due to the evacuation related stress.

People are forced to live in a temporary house during evacuation.

A very very small room in a temporary house.

Even in such a tough living condition, people tried to make a community among evacuees to not to lose hope for the future while receiving aid and assistance all over the world.  

In six years, Tomioka has totally changed.

It has become a heaven for animals.

Abandoned homes of town people has become the homes to various animals.

For example wild bore, fox, rats, raccoons, civet, and so on.

After the accident, the radiation level was so high that you could not enter into the town, and into the houses.

In the houses rain water leak from the roof, so the molds are all over and degradation of the houses is getting worse.

Some town people bought new homes in a new area where they evacuated now and decided to settle the land.

Even though they never forget their hometown, but they don’t think it is realistic to go home.

It was officially decided that the evacuation order would be lifted in some parts of Tomioka town this coming April.

While decontamination work has proceeded, the radiation level has decreased in the town. The decision was made because they thought that the evacuation order lasted longer the chances of recovering the town might disappear.

In the town, houses damaged by earthquake or the Tsunami have demolished.

Badly degraded houses are now being demolished.

The hospitals are reopened. Public run houses were newly built.

The town is stepping up its recovery work.

However, now the town people are having hard time in making decisions.

I will return or I will not return, this is one of the toughest decisions that they have to make.

Differences in thinking divide town people.

For example, some say it is not realistic to go back even though I want to so.

Some say you will not know if it is reality that.

Some say if nobody goes back that the town would actually disappear.

I think the important thing is to respect the choices of other people who have decided to return or who had decided not to return or who have not decided yet.  I think it’s also important that people who had decided to return could say that it is very good to come back here after hey come back to hometown.

As six years have passed since the disaster the challenges we face have become more complicated.

It will take some more time for Fukushima to overcome those challenges.

To overcome the challenges we would like the people outside Fukushima not only in our country, but also in overseas to understand the current situation of Fukushima and think that Fukushima issue is also everybody’s issue to think about.

Because I think that the disaster in Fukushima was a human induced nuclear accident.

We would like to keep up our storytelling activity to make people understand this fact.

In this presentation from the beginning I wrapped up the overview of what happened just right after the accident and until now.

There is so much more that I would like to talk about, but I would like to answer questions should you have them. I would appreciate it if you would ask me how the current situations in Fukushima are like, things that you wonder about, and things that you would like to know, so that I may respond to those questions while I continue this press conference.

Moderator: Thank you very much for your presentation. I would like to now open up the floor for any questions people have. I would like to ask that press club members first…have had an opportunity to ask a question and please state your name and affiliation. Please use your microphones that are provided. Are there any questions?

Hello. I’m from Shanghai TV. First of all, I would like to ask about how residents of Fukushima feel about the nuclear power plant? How do they feel about the nuclear power energy program in general? Are they supportive or against it? Do they feel the various measures taken by TEPCO are effective or not effective at all? I would appreciate your answer.

Aoki: Firstly I don’t know the opinions of all the people in Fukushima. I cannot answer on behalf of them. Let me explain my own opinion.

I don’t think nuclear power plants are necessary because the potential loss that may occur is too huge.

There is nothing absolute in this world. Nuclear power plants are scary in that you cannot say they are completely safe.

Please look at Fukushima. Please look at the reality where 80,000 people are still living in evacuation.

When you think of the fear involving nuclear power plant accidents, you may think of radiation and things that surround that type of thing. Let me talk about the fear other than those things.

Not only is your body being destroyed, but your soul is also being destroyed.

All of things that you took for granted you will be deprived of, one after another.

Before the disaster, I was the principal of Tomioka High School.

Yesterday, Tomioka High School held their last graduation ceremony.

The history of a high school that continued for 80 years ended yesterday.

One of the students who was graduating made a remark as follows:

“Everyone has a school to visit when they face hardships or feel nostalgic about their schools.”

In high schools in Japan, graduates often visit their former schools.

There are associations called Dosokai which are comprised of alumni.  

Graduates often help each other even after they enter the workforce.

Yesterday they said, “We will lose a school to visit.”

Of course, there are things to worry about such as scientific effects by radiation. But more than anything else I feel a sense of hatred that the nuclear disaster destroyed things like these bonds between people and their emotions.

I mentioned that I am unable to speak on behalf of all the residents in the Fukushima Prefecture. Let me explain this. For example, please look at this map.

Tomioka town was in between two nuclear power plants.

The livelihood of Tomioka became affluent after the two nuclear power plants were built.

Tomioka became wealthy due to the operations of the two plants.

The revenue of Tomioka town was very low before the nuclear power plants were built.

After the power plants were built, employment increased, and the lives of townspeople become wealthy.

At that time the residents of Tomioka town who supported the construction of the power plants thought that the addition of these power plants were successful.

However, the accident revealed the tremendous risks of nuclear power plants.

This forces us to reconsider the true meaning of wealth.

Therefore, it is my assumption that the residents of the Fukushima Prefecture are at least questioning the nuclear energy programs.

I am not clear about with the second part of the question. For example, were you referencing the measures taken by TEPCO such as putting a robot into the plant?

I am not familiar with all measures taken by TEPCO, but with regards to decontamination, radiation levels go down right after decontamination is carried out.

But after a while, the radiation levels go up again. So, I am still not sure about the effectiveness of decontamination. Therefore, we need more time to determine whether decontamination is effective or not.

Hi. Joel Legendre from French Radio and TV. Thank you for sharing your statements and feelings. That’s what I am touched most. Feelings. My question is about the sense of I think we say “abandonment” in English. Media don’t talk much about you except on the day of anniversary. National or international media don’t really care about your people compared to before. This is something that is struggling for me. I don’t understand why they don’t care much. Because as a French, I know about a nuclear thing. We all heard that our scientists are saying that from five years after the catastrophe is going to be difficult for people in terms of health, psychology and all those things. So, I can feel in your words how concerned you are by these, you know, ties broken. You have not talked about medical problems, but I think 150 children have been diagnosed with leukemia or 145. So I would like to hear about your feeling of being cared or not in the society where people are supposed to be together. The sense of togetherness seems to have disappeared vis-à-vis the Fukushima people from the rest of the societies in Japan. So  is it possible to hear about your feelings that you have today. Also talk to us about medical situation situations of young children and people in general, and uh, just correct one… There is one person in Tomioka I heard about. Matsumura-san? Is that his name? A farmer.

Moderator: I would like to clarify. When you mention that 150 children with leukemia you mean thyroid cancer. Is that…

Legendre: Some of them seem to be diagnosed with the issues of leukemia, and uh…

Moderator: Thyroid cancer, right? Ok.

Legendre: Yeah. Yeah.

Moderator: OK.

Legendre: The question number one. You feel abandoned or not from the rest of Japan? The question number two is medical. Also is it true that there are some people still living there. Like uh… Is it Matsumura-san or Matsushima-san?

Aoki: We don’t feel abandoned. Everyone including myself is grateful to people all over the world. Like I said previously, we did not bring anything with us when we evacuated in cars. We survived thanks to everyone’s aid and support, including even the smallest items like underwear that were donated to us.

I believe that all the people from Tomioka town are thankful in this way. So I don’t think we feel abandoned. But I think that the truth has not yet been conveyed to the world.

For example, some believe that there are no issues in Fukushima; that all issues have been solved. They mistakenly think that people’s lives are back to the way they used to be.

 Another example is the complete opposite of this and that Fukushima is too dangerous of a place to live in, with extremely high doses of radiation. They believe that Fukushima is not a place where humans can live.

Both views are incorrect.

I would like people to know the true Fukushima.

I would like people to come to Fukushima.

Aoki: People often ask me about the illnesses of people in Fukushima. The results have not been made yet, as we are only part way through them.  It is an unprecedented accident, so we don’t yet know how it will affect human bodies. I am very concerned about this. Children in Fukushima are having medical check ups on a regular basis and they have medical check ups for their thyroids. However, we don’t yet have any results that prove the direct relationship between health issues and the accident. At the moment, there are no immediate effects on the human body. The authorities always say that there are no immediate influences on our bodies and we believe what they say. In terms of when the effects will appear in our bodies, we really don’t know. That is the current situation.

Legendre: Do you think that people would come back? This is my  follow up and I will finish with that. Sorry about that. At the end of this month people are going to be back in Itate. There is a possibility that people can come back to Itate and another city. Do you think that they are going to be a lot of people coming back or is it like in the past for other cities just 10 or 15% come back to their home? Did you understand my question?

*As of March 31st, 2017 the evacuation order on three towns ( Kawamata , Itate, and Namie) in Fukushima will lifted, so the townspeople may return.*

Aoki: As I mentioned previously, townspeople from Tomioka will start returning to their homes as of April 1st.  According to questionnaires, 16% of evacuees from Tomioka town answered that they will return to Tomioka. Though 16% of the respondents answered that they would come back to Tomioka, there is still an area in the town where they cannot enter. That area is surround by fences that block entry to them.  Below is a map of Tomioka town. The area in pink is the area where entry is prohibited.

Those who have their houses in the pink area cannot go home even from April onwards. Even for those who can go home, their houses usually have been damaged by rats.

This is a photo of a house that has been badly degraded by rats. Like I mentioned earlier in my speech, various animals enter houses and hang around in garderns.  Even though evacuees want to go home, their houses are not in a state where they can start living in them. In spite of this, we are concerned that if we keep abandoning our town any longer, the town will disappear. So the town is trying to create an environment where people are able to come home easier by taking measures such as doing decontaminations to lower the radiation levels and building new houses for those whose houses are not suitable for living. The town is trying to persuade people to come home by taking measures like this at the moment. I assume this is the same situation in the cases of Itate village and Namie town. There are evacuees who have decided to go home and are excited by it. However, there were those who could not go home even though they wanted to go home. Some of them were dissuaded by their children, and others did not have confidence in their health. At the moment, the evacuees are ambivalent on whether they are going home or not.  

German Correspondent: You said a few minutes ago. You don’t feel abandoned. And then you said that you worry about those people saying that everything is OK in Fukushima now. Famously the Prime Minister Abe himself said everything is under control. The way that the government acts is that they obviously want us to believe that everybody to believe that everything is fine. I can’t understand why you don’t feel abandoned by the government. When the government says everything is under control.

Aoki: I am concerned that what I will speak from now will be taken as a representation of the whole Fukushima population. But, ever since the disaster occurred on March 11st 2011, I have come to feel as if I must be dependent on myself. I have to decide everything on my own. I have become so accustomed to think this way. So I have not been relying on the government much. (The exact word that she used is gyosei which means public administration.) I have been this way, so I find myself not being very angry despite hearing stupid remarks. This may not be a good answer to your question though.

For example, please look at this photo. The person standing in the beginning of the line; his clothing is regular, so to speak.

And this is a photo of the policemen who are leading the lines of cars. They dressed like this.

Townspeople were evacuating in normal clothing because they did not have any information. Things like this happened one after another at that time. For example, we were not informed of how the radiation plume came up in the air and where it spread to, until more than one month after the accident had passed. Itate village started evacuation after they learned that a lot of radiation fell on them.

Legendre Suimasen. (Japanese word that means “excuse me.”) Can I follow up on that? It is very important what you said. People say that TEPCO people and authorities came within hours to warn people. You have to leave the area just after the explosion. Just after the explosion people say that within hours police and another people came to warn people and told them to leave. We saw on TV people leaving these areas which are covered with nuclear cloud. Is that true or not? No. I want to know if they were left or not. Because they were…people were taken by buses, so I want to know.

Moderator: I think this is an opportunity for us to hear Ms. Aoki’s experience. As she understands it, so that may have been the case for some people, but we can ask her what her experience was and what she knew at that time.

Aoki: I have not heard any stories where somebody from TEPCO went to a town and rushed citizens to evacuate. I don’t know the time order of everything that happened, but first, the Prime Minister gave an order to all townspeople to evacuate. That was on March 12th. The order was issued by the Cabinet Office. Policemen and Self Defense Force personnel told citizens that they have to evacuate as soon as possible. That’s what happened. In the case of Tomioka town, all the residents evacuated with their cars all at once. However, there were people who had not evacuated and remained in their houses at that time. Those people were told afterwards to run away as soon as possible.

Moderator: My understanding of what she said exactly was that it was around the month she saw the data. She saw the map of the data which showed clearly where radiation had gone. I don’t think the suggestion-she was not suggesting that people were not evacuated. I think she was saying that it was one month before people really saw exactly where the data was going. So while people were evacuated in concentric circles of five kilometers, ten kilometers, twenty kilometers. That’s not exactly where the radiation went. So I think what she was saying was that it was quite a while-what she said specifically was they had not been told which means that the data existed and it had not been released, so I think that’s what she was saying and it was a full two months before Itate village was evacuated.  It was not until the end of the May that they evacuated fully.

Moderator: So I think that’s the main focus of what her statement was. I’m afraid that we are out of time. Is that correct? OK. I would like to thank Ms. Aoki for coming to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan today. As many of us here are journalists and I’m a filmmaker, we are working very hard to share with people both in Japan and in the world about what is happening in Fukushima. And as Joel mentioned in his question, I think it’s so important that we continue to talk about this issue not only on the anniversary; as we approach anniversary, but we talk about this all year around. And I would like to thank you for coming to the press club today and also wish you much luck, much courage in your work travelling many countries around the world and in Japan to share the story of what is happening in Fukushima from the point of view of someone from Fukushima who is living through this disaster currently. So, thank you very much.




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