Two years after the disaster: Poet Jotaro Wakamatsu

Bequeath children a future without nuclear disasters

Story and Photo by Naoki Tahara, Editorial Writer

Nearly two years have passed since the Great East Japan Earthquake. It is still unclear when the reactors involved in the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 (Daiichi) nuclear power plant will be decommissioned, and the residents in the vicinity of the plant are seriously worried and deeply distressed. I visited poet Jotaro Wakamatsu, 77, who is still living in Minami Soma in Fukushima Prefecture. “I don’t want to complain loudly,” he said. “I want to listen to the voices of the dead.” The following are excerpts from my interview with him.

How do you feel now, living 25 km from the nuclear power plant?
The government reorganized the areas from which people were ordered to be evacuated, and they seem to be applying pressure to get residents to return. They seem to be in a hurry to put an end to the problem. But a lot of people, particularly young mothers, are still living as evacuees in the cities of Koriyama and Fukushima. Even though the radiation level is higher than in Minami Soma and decontamination is proceeding, radioactive materials are still being released. It stands to reason that families with young children are hesitant to return.

They seem to be distrustful as well.
That’s because there’s been a lot of deception and concealment. For example, the government said, “There is no immediate danger to health.” But if you turn that around, it means that there may be danger in the future. It was revealed that Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) lied to the Diet’s Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission and said that it was pitch-dark inside the power plant and no one could go in. Then they lied again when explaining this lie. We have to read between the lines. The reason I write poetry and criticism is to fight with words.

The title of your new book “Fukushima kakusai kimin” [Abandoned People of the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster] is unusual.
It’s referred to as a “genpatsu jiko” [literally “atomic power plant accident”], but it’s not an accident in the same category with a traffic accident. It was a nuclear disaster that resulted from the misuse of nuclear energy by human beings. The impact of a nuclear disaster is tremendous, both “spatially” and psychologically. I refer to “genpatsu” as “kaku hatsuden” [literally “nuclear power generation”] because the use of nuclear materials and nuclear reactions is the same as in an atomic – that is to say nuclear – bomb. Even if you call it “atomic power generation” and give it an image of the peaceful use of the atom, it’s essentially the same thing.

Why did you decide to use the term “abandoned people”?
People at TEPCO reportedly referred to Fukushima as a “colony.” All of TEPCO’s power plants are located outside its distribution area. The plants are dangerous, so they were situated in places like Fukushima and Niigata, outside TEPCO’s “homeland.” In other words, I’m a resident of a colony. I’m a person who has been cast out of the country and abandoned. I suppose it’s the same way the people of Okinawa, who have had many U.S. military bases forced on them, feel.

In a session of the Diet, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared that he will restart the nation’s nuclear plants.
I suppose it’s necessary for economic recovery, but we must not consider only the immediate future. It’s said that a major earthquake will occur in Japan within the next few decades. A country like that can’t use nuclear power generation. That’s obvious if you look at Fukushima. Two years have passed, but it’s still unclear when the clean-up will be finished. So why restart other plants? When we consider the children of the future, it shouldn’t be possible.

Why can’t Japan change?
I think it’s related to the issue of war responsibility. After Japan lost the war, the government didn’t do a thorough job of pursuing its responsibility. I think quite a few problems spring from that. In the case of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant as well, for the most part the parties involved have not been called to account. So the same thing could happen again.

You wrote a poem entitled “Kamikakushi sareta machi” [The Spirited-Away Town] during a visit to the nuclear plant in Chernobyl. After the accident in Fukushima it was regarded as prophetic.
The folklorist Norio Akasaka referred to another of my poems as “apocalyptic.” But I didn’t have any intention of predicting the future. Nineteen years ago, I imagined Fukushima like the town near Chernobyl and wrote a poem about it. All the residents had disappeared from the “spirited-away town” as a result of the accident. At the time I was looking at it as an outsider. I had some concerns about the nuclear power plant in Fukushima, but I didn’t think a nuclear disaster would occur.

The line that says “We may be spirited away today” sounds frightening.
Two years have passed, and many politicians and Japanese people may think that the nuclear disaster is over. But there are still 50 nuclear reactors in Japan, and we don’t know when or where another nuclear disaster will occur. I’d like people to realize that it could happen near them.

What can we do?
Damage and scars from the atomic bombings remain in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the same way, the residents of Fukushima will be suffering for another 30 or 40 years. It may be difficult to imagine how they feel, but I want many people to see the current situation in Fukushima and then together consider the continuation of life.

Jotaro Wakamatsu
Born in Oshu, Iwate Prefecture. Graduate of Fukushima University. Former high school teacher. Author of numerous anthologies of poetry and criticism including “There Were Several Rivers,” “The Wind and the Canary at Lat. 37°25' N.” and “What Makes Us,” a collaboration with Arthur Binard. Member of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant Lawsuit Group, which consists of residents of the prefecture and others. Petitioner in the People’s Tribunal on Nuclear Power, in which ordinary citizens will sit in judgment. Member of various groups including the Japan P.E.N. Club and the Poetry Society for the Consideration of War and Peace.

(Originally published on March 6, 2013)