I get an offer to go into the Fukushima nuclear exclusion zone with the artist Hiroshi Ashikaga. I’ve been stalking him online. He’s got this one artwork, a series of photos, disturbingly different to the images of Fukushima you might have seen on television or online: the black surge of water, the pyres of debris, the radioactive-pink sky. Hiroshi’s photos, laid out on a web page in tiles, are of abandoned forest-side shrines. You get a sense of horror when you realise that the profusion of green around the shrines—a kind of Eden to the Tokyo-tortured eye—is so radically poisoned that people no longer worship there. You get the sense that these structures belong to a civilisation long extinct. Several of the tiles aren’t photos at all, but videos, in which a rope slightly swings, a white flag flutters. The piece is called ‘Shrines of Supernature.’

I meet Hiroshi at 7.30pm at Tokyo Station, in the calm eddy of a café. He looks different to the millions of men swiping through the ticket gates in that he doesn’t wear a suit. He looks the same, in that his clothes are sombre shades and he’s tired. But Hiroshi’s not the same. Hiroshima-born, he regularly enters the exclusion zone for his art. He even cleared radioactive debris right after the quake and was surprised more people weren’t keen to volunteer.

We’re joined by Jaime Humphreys, an English artist who’s been living in Japan so long he’s foregone his UK voting rights. Jaime introduced me to Hiroshi’s work a few weeks ago. While we caffeinate, Jaime translates. 

Hiroshi says the exclusion zone’s shrinking. Residents are moving back. No one wears the full space suits on the outskirts anymore and if you did, people would stare. A facemask and gloves are enough. And in the actual exclusion zone? What kind of precautions do we need to take? No weeing, Hiroshi says. If you need to wee, we’ll have to drive out and come back in. No lunch. Definitely no lunch. And as for cars, I won’t take my own car in, only a rental car. And as for Geiger counters, I used to take one in, but the government’s installed them everywhere, so I don’t anymore.  

I’ve got my reservations.

So does Hiroshi, not about the safety precautions, but about taking other artists with him. In the past, particularly in the months and years immediately following the disaster, he had artists who, as they crossed the border into the exclusion zone, complained of severe headaches.

Did you get headaches? I ask.  

Sometimes, at first. But not anymore.

Australian uranium fuelled the Tokyo Electric Power Company’s (TEPCO) Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. It’s the reason I’m here in Japan. I’m on an Asialink writing residency at Youkobo Artspace in Tokyo, working on my second novel Red Can Origami—a book about beer guzzling, barra fishing, and a bitter conflict between a Japanese-owned uranium company and a native title group in northern Western Australia. The book culminates with the Fukushima Daiichi triple meltdown and I feel compelled to go, if not into the exclusion zone, at least to the area. But I’m anxious about exposing myself to excess radiation. No amount of Martha Gellhorn’s early journalism has been enough to steel me, or to wipe the quinine-shrill ring of John Hersey or Svetlana Alexievich. And then Hiroshi tells me about the video.

‘Swimming up from Fukushima gulf to home river’ was shot in 2011 twenty-five kilometres north of the Fukushima Daiichi Power Nuclear Power Plant in Minamisōma City. The opening frames are of the river: a half-sunken bus, a half-sunken house. We hear that right after the accident the river was choked with dead horses and dead cows. The voices behind the camera say that no one’s fishing this year; no one wants to eat radioactive fish. The water’s an industrial grey. We see a person. They’re swimming a slow, awkward freestyle. Their face gleams cold and pale. The last frame in the video is of a salmon-fin flicker.

I saw that video of yours, I tell Hiroshi. Who was it, swimming upstream like the salmon? That was me, Hiroshi says.

I tell Hiroshi I am too scared to go, and instead, I visit Hiroshima. Wander nauseously through the exhibits of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum: photographs and burnt clothes and a rusting tricycle. When people first saw the flash of the bomb, they thought, Kirei! Kirei! So beautiful! And then the burns and the black rain welcomed by thirsty throats and the children, saying, Mum, I’m just going to lie down now, I think I need to go to sleep, and the shadows of bodies peeled from the concrete, and the red Mars-scapes of keloid scars, rising as the skin remembers.

I visit the Maruki Museum with my hosts at Youkobo, Hiroko and Tatsuhiko Murata. It houses the Hiroshima panels: looming, exquisite visions of hell. On byōbu, wind walls, Japanese folding screens, we see bomb-skinned bodies emerging from vermillion and charcoal. Too many. Too many to paint, the late Iri and Toshi Maruki tell us in the exhibition booklet. We could paint all our lives and still, we couldn’t paint everyone.

There’s a bamboo thicket, stalks seared on one side. In the thicket women crawl, hide, hang. You can almost see each separate strand of hair, so carefully and finely applied is the ink. Their lovely almond eyes are mad and maundering with what they’ve seen.  

A man sits on one of the seats in the middle of the first gallery and weeps.

What inner strength Iri and Toshi must have had to contemplate and internalise such vast misery. It’s like war reporting in paint, floor-to-ceiling warnings: this is the low water mark of our humanity. From their strength, I gather courage, and book a ticket to Minamisōma City where Hiroshi shot his salmon video.

On the train, there’s a young man carrying a surfboard. We get talking, my tentative Japanese, his tentative English. I gesture toward the sea—it’s somewhere down a dismal highway of service stations and monstrous family restaurants, somewhere beyond the tsunami-swept fields, the coal-fired power station. Do you surf here, I ask. Yeah, I surf here. And is it safe? He looks confused. Is safety an issue? Ahh, hai, hai. It’s very safety.
Amidst fears of soaring air-born radiation, more than 60,000 people were evacuated from Minamisōma City. Areas were classified as: ‘Evacuation order cancellation preparation zone’, ‘Restricted residence zone’, or ‘Difficult-to-return zone’, the latter being the most severe, where entry is prohibited. In July last year, all restrictions in Minamisōma City were lifted bar one.

I walk the main street from Haranomachi Station toward the mountains. In the late afternoon light, they have a misty, malignant quality. It’s very quiet. There are old-fashioned street lamps with curving necks. There are wooden shopfronts and classical rooves lacquered black with rain. Banners and flags advertise the annual ‘Soma Nomaoi’ festival, which dates back to the 10th century. It combined war and worship—was both a secret samurai military exercise, and a gifting of wild horses to a Shinto deity. There’s something bold about the vivid posters, the flags, something hopeful and proud. Especially considering that many of the shops on the main street remain closed, with locked roller doors and papered windows.

Later that night, I’ll be passive smoking in a bar with bad lights and tossing back a mean clear sake that throws fumes like unleaded. I’ll be thinking about the older couple I saw a few blocks from here in their garden. In the cool evening light, they’d put aside their trowels and were crouched over a harvest of fresh potatoes. They smiled as I passed.

The first bags of radioactive topsoil are visible within ten minutes of leaving Minamisōma City. It’s just a small stash. The bags are a bright, paintbox blue. Then the bus swings a corner and my eyes are drawn to a vaporous valley, to that sun-smoked point where two mountains collide. The air smells good, cypress clean. I wonder though, hair streaming, bus window open. Because until now, I had no idea how far the radiation blew on the wind.
Now we’re travelling past empty homes. There are no people. There are no rice paddies. There are no crops. There are only fields of weeds and Geiger counters and bagged up radioactive topsoil. There are only shrines, slowly leaning back into the damaged forests.

So, I think, this is what a nuclear disaster zone looks like. The invisible disaster is difficult to comprehend.

In Naraha, twenty kilometres south of Fukushima Daiichi, the school children are warned not to take pinecones or acorns from the forest for fear of radiation poisoning. I read this in the New York Times. I wonder what children they’re referring to, because there are no children on the train. The train’s almost empty. There are only a few old people, two nuns, and myself.

I stay on the cusp of Naraha in an industrial estate behind another of TEPCO’s power plants, the Hirono Thermal Power Station. This one’s fuelled partly by Australian coal.

I don’t know what I was expecting, so close to the exclusion zone. Probably desolation. Barricades. Empty buildings. Ghost roads. Certainly not a highway flooded with traffic; certainly not a restaurant packed with FIFOs. The area is a giant construction site. The Japanese are busy building ‘J-Village’ which will be the training base for Japan’s soccer teams ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

We’re twenty kilometres south of a mother-load of nuclear waste too radioactive for any humans to access or assess.

Earlier that day, before I boarded the train for Hirono, Fukushima Prefecture was rattled by an earthquake, a 5.8 on the Richter scale. No one paid any attention. A couple of girls swayed past in kimonos and clogs, but they didn’t slow, or look up from their phones. So I decided to shrug it off too.

Until I got to the coast, until I could smell the saltwater, until I was here, twenty kilometres south. Then I wondered: what if the next quake’s tonight? What if it’s bigger? What if a tsunami hits while I sleep? What if all that melted nuclear fuel escapes?

And I felt scared. Perhaps we should all be scared.

TEPCO’s been sending robots in to identify the exact location of the melted fuel. The robots have been cooking in the radiation and dying. Levels are much higher than originally anticipated. But soon there’ll be some success, with a swimming robot called Little Sunfish; soon they’ll have photos of fuel rods like stalactites, of nuclear fuel hardened like some toxic coral; soon they’ll figure out a way to remove it. Reactor 2 will be a problem. In reactor 2, there are cracks in the containment vessel.

But in the meantime, there’s another issue, the onsite tritium-spiked wastewater. Tritium’s a carcinogen. Dangerous to humans if ingested in large quantities, it’s a by-product of nuclear operations, and it can’t be filtered out of water. TEPCO’s running out of storage space at the plant and a few weeks ago, the company’s chairman announced mulishly, ominously, ‘The decision has already been made.’

The ‘decision’ is to dump the treated wastewater into the ocean.

I head to the beach near J-Village. It’s been a month since I’ve had a surf. Japan’s summers are notoriously flat and I’m waiting for the ocean to roar to life next week with the start of typhoon season. There are three guys surfing in the windbreak thrown by the Hirono Thermal Power Station. Just up the coast, hidden in the mist, is Fukushima Daiichi. There used to be a wave there, too, one of the best in Japan.

I wonder if they know about TEPCO’s plans for the wastewater? I wonder if they read TEPCO’s report from last week: a catch of sea bream, just two kilometres offshore from here, were found fat with Strontium-90, a radioactive isotrope present in spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste?

That lovely blue. The cold burn of salt on skin. God, I’d love a dip. But I’d say the decision has already been made.

A week later, I’m wrapping up the residency with a public talk. I talk about my imagined Japan—not the Japan of onsens and robot restaurants and hedonistic Hokkaido snow missions—but a country of Tanizaki’s multiple shadows, the shadows of miso and soy; a country of mountains, where, as Angela Carter writes in one short story, ‘the air is choked all day with diffuse moisture, tremulously, endlessly on the point of becoming rain …’, a country of shrines. The closest I came to this imagined ideal, was travelling through the mountain country behind Minamisōma—exquisitely beautiful, and now, exquisitely ruined.

—Is there anything you want to tell the people of Fukushima? Asks a man in the audience when I’m finished.  

What do I tell them, this attentive and concerned group of Tokyo intellectuals? What would I tell the people of Fukushima? That Australians will stop mining uranium? That despite Western Australia’s new state Labor government banning any new mines, projects at Kintyre, Yeelirrie, Mulga Rock and Wiluna will continue unchecked? Would I tell the people of Fukushima that Australia has sent its first stealthy shipment of uranium to India? I’ve already shared with them some of that gracious letter sent by Yvonne Margarula of the Mirrar people in the Northern Territory to Ban Ki-moon, the former Secretary General of the United Nations. She wrote, ‘It is likely that the radiation problems at Fukushima are, at least in part, fuelled by uranium derived from our traditional lands. This makes us feel very sad … We are all diminished by the awful events now unfolding at Fukushima.’

—I would tell the people of Fukushima that I am from Australia, and I am so very ashamed, and so very sorry.


Madelaine Dickie

Madelaine Dickie

Madelaine Dickie is an Australian author who won the 2014 City of Fremantle T.A.G Hungerford Award for her debut novel Troppo – a tale of black magic, heaving Indonesian surf, and mad Australian expatriates. Her writing has appeared in Australian and international publications, including The Griffith Review (2013) and Creative Nonfiction (2012). She travelled to Japan earlier this year on a two-month Asialink Arts Residency to research and write her second novel, Red Can Origami.