Riding the wave of recovery
Even before the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdowns of March 2011, Fukushima Prefecture in northeastern Japan wasn’t the first place you’d choose to go on a surf trip. While the coast has plentiful surf, its distance from the seething metropolis of Tokyo kept Fukushima off the radar for most weekend surfers, leaving uncrowded spoils for those lucky few in the know.
Words: K. Rhodes with support from THE SURF NEWS Japan
With an area of 13,800m2, Fukushima is the third-largest prefecture in Japan, stretching from the snowy mountains in the west to the Pacific coast in the east. Fertile plains feed an agricultural industry lead by peaches, pears and rice. The Pacific coast is rich in sea life, spawning thriving fishing and seafood industries. The area also has a rich history and culture that thrives alongside abundant natural resources and beautiful scenery.
In the eight plus years since the triple catastrophe (*See Data box 1), the slow and tedious cleanup, recovery, and rebuilding process has long since stopped making news headlines. However, as Japan steps up preparations for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, some of which will be held in the disaster affected Tohoku area, Fukushima has once again been thrust into the spotlight. When I caught wind that the Japan Pro Surfing Association was holding their first ever national professional surfing competition in Fukushima, I decided to pack my bags and find out first-hand what was really going on in this oftenmisunderstood region.
Fukushima is just over an hour north of Tokyo by Shinkansen (bullet train). I was met at the station by Fukushima resident Ishiuchi Kei, a keen snowboarder and surfer who was to be my guide for the trip. It was a gloomy Sunday morning as we left the station behind and began the hour-long drive to the beach. With the city behind, evidence of the nuclear disaster soon became apparent. Monitoring posts located every few kilometrs along the main road displayed real-time radiation readings. Driving through Iitate, an area heavily irradiated despite being mostly outside the nominal 30km exclusion zone, the readings showed 0.124 μSv/h (*See Data Box 2), several times higher than pre-disaster levels, though still low on a global scale.
Another reminder of the disaster came in the form of huge piles of radioactive soil packed into bags and covered with large waterproof sheets, the result of ongoing government funded ‘decontamination’ work which aims to reduce annual exposure to under 20 mSv, the government limit for allowing evacuees to return to their homes. Fukushima was once known as the bread-basket of Japan, and the area of Iitate was especially famous for its cattle farming. Now there was little to be seen on the farmland but piles of contaminated soil. I asked Kei if many of the estimated 160,000 evacuees from the nuclear disaster had chosen to return.
“Some elderly people have returned, but the population has shrunk dramatically. Schools have closed and a lot of shops remain shut. Many evacuees have settled down elsewhere during the years since the disaster.”
“How about the people who returned? Are they worried about the radiation?” I asked.
“They try not to think about it. Once they’ve made the choice to come back, it’s better to just get on with their lives. This is the new reality for Fukushima. Worrying only makes it worse.”
We arrived at the surfing contest site of Kitaizumi just in time for emerging surf star Inoue Taka’s heat. 18-yearold Taka was on a competitive tear, notching two wins and a second from three contests on the Japanese pro tour so far this year. Another win here would see him claim the national title before the season finale in September.
The waves were chest-high with a light onshore sea breeze and intermittent rain. Conditions were by no means ideal, but Taka took to the waves with a vengeance, mixing high performance maneuvers with classic longboard style including a long and stylish hang- 10 for a heat score that more than doubled that of his nearest opponent. After his heat, I approached him to ask his impressions of Fukushima.
DATA BOX 1
Radioactive material is found throughout nature in soil, rocks, water, air, and vegetation, alongside cosmic radiation from space. The worldwide average natural dose to humans is around 2.4 mSv (milli-Sieverts, see below) per year. Alongside this ‘background radiation,’ exposure to artificial ionising radiation, such as from nuclear sites and medical use averages 0.6 mSv/year worldwide and between 2.3 – 3.1 mSv/ year in technologically advanced countries such as Japan and the USA.
UNITS OF RADIATION
Sievert (Sv): A derived unit of ionising radiation dose used to measure of the health effect on the human body.
1 Sv = 1 joule/ kg and carries with it a 5.5% chance of eventually developing cancer.
Milli-Sievert (mSv): 1/1000 of a Sievert Micro-Sievert (μSv): 1/1000 of a milli-Sievert, or1-millionth of a Sievert Becquerel (Bq): A unit of radioactive decay.
1 Bq is defined as one decay or disintegration per second.
“This is my first time here, but the waves have been great. It was so good on Friday, I surfed for 10 hours – both longboarding and shortboarding.”
Taka is one of a rare breed of surfer who competes professionally in three disciplines; shortboard, longboard and SUP (Standup Paddle Board).
“Do you have any concerns about the radiation?”
“No. If they decided to have a contest here, I’m sure it’s fine. If anything, I hope I can help bring some joy to Fukushima.”
His sentiments seem to be shared with many of the other surfers in the competition. Rather than being worried about surfing in Fukushima, they are happy to support the recovery effort in any way they can.
JPSA management were also happy to hold their first professional competition in Fukushima.
“The beaches are closely monitored, and if they are safe enough for swimming, then I believe they are safe for surfing too. The local council has been very cooperative and we’re excited to have a professional longboarding competition in such great waves,” an official commented.
I went in search of Taka’s mother, who accompanies him on most of their surf trips around the country chasing contests. I wondered if she had any more concerns, as mothers always seem to do.
“The radiation is definitely on my mind, but I can see all the work they’ve done to rebuild after the disaster. The local council and prefectural government check the water regularly, and if JPSA management decides to have an event here, that’s good enough for me. I was a little worried about my daughter at first, as young women are more susceptible to the effects of radiation, but the waves have just been so good the last few days, I couldn’t keep her out of the water!” she laughed.
“I think it’s sad that so many people stay away from Fukushima just because of bad rumours,” his mother continued.
“I’m glad we came. I hope that Taka can do well and contribute to the recovery efforts in some way. You don’t hear much positive news from Fukushima these days, so I hope that changes in the future. The waves are great, and all the facilities have been rebuilt so nicely after the tsunami.”
Yes, the tsunami.
While the nuclear disaster has received the lion’s share of coverage in the world media, it was the tsunami that left the deepest scars up and down the coast, killing 16,000 people and leaving 2,500 still missing. Here at the competition venue of Kitaizumi, the tsunami washed away the hugely popular campground along with the pine forest planted to protect it. Cars and debris were strewn upside-down in the fields. The neighbouring coal-fired power plant was severely damaged, and sand washed everywhere, leaving virtually none left on the beach.
“It was complete chaos,” said Kei, who drove down to the beach through the debris just weeks after the tsunami.
“But you know what? Three months after the tsunami, the beach itself had returned to normal. Mother Nature has an immense power to cleanse and heal herself.”
DATA BOX 2
TRIPLE CATASTROPHES OF 2011
At 2:46pm on 11 March 2011 a M9.0 Earthquake struck around 70km off the Tohoku coast of northeastern Japan. The earthquake triggered a tsunami that is estimated to have reached 40m in height and travelled up to 10km inland, killing nearly 16,000 people and leaving 2,500 still unaccounted for. The tsunami brought about a level 7 nuclear disaster at Fukushima-Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, the most severe nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986.
Searching for more first-hand accounts, I ventured down to the lifeguard tower and sought out the person in charge. Nagasawa Fumiaki, burly and tanned, grew up on these beaches and has watched over them as a lifeguard for nearly 20 years.
“My father used to work at the nuclear power plant, cleaning inside the reactors. He’d work for 5 minutes before his maximum dose limit was reached and spend the rest of the day playing shogi (Japanese chess). He ended up dying from cancer. These days, one in two people get some form of cancer, so it’s hard to say for sure, but ever since he died, I have been suspicious of radiation. He took the job to put me through school but ended up paying for it with his life.” It was a heavy story to process on a Sunday morning at the beach. He continued, regardless.
“So, when the nuclear accident happened, I immediately took my wife and young child and fled. When I saw the explosion at reactor three, I thought it was over for Japan. I grabbed our passports and started looking for options to escape overseas. In the end, someone in Okinawa (southern Japan, almost 2,000km from Fukushima) agreed to take us in so we bought oneway tickets on the first boat.”
Life in tropical Okinawa, with no distinct seasons, didn’t suit them though and they ended up moving to Miyazaki, around half-way back to Fukushima.
“My child is going to school there now and we’re pretty settled, but when I heard they were going to re-open the beach here for swimming, I had to come back and help.”
“Is the water safe now?” I asked.
“If you’re talking about radiation, it pretty much always has been [safe]. There was a spike right after the explosions, but it’s amazing how quickly the readings went down. In seawater, much of the radioactive Cesium sinks and mixes with sediment, washing out to deeper water. The only reason it has taken this long to re-open the beaches is because people had to re-build their lives before they could even think about leisure. Most people refrained from surfing here for three years after the disaster, but that was out of respect for those who were taken by the tsunami, not because of radiation.”
His claims can be backed up with a search online for radiation monitoring post-disaster. Seawater samples, even close to the stricken nuclear power plant, went down to predisaster levels relatively quickly, while radiation in sediment has remained high. A 2016 Greenpeace Report showed contamination in seabed samples near the nuclear plant up to 120 Bq/kg compared to pre-2011 levels of 0.3 Bq/kg.
“The sheer size of the Pacific Ocean combined with powerful complex currents has led to the widespread dispersal of contamination.” notes Kendra Ulrich, Senior Global Energy Campaigner at Greenpeace Japan. I placed my hand-held Geiger-counter on the sand to check for myself. It read 0.036 μSv/h, no discernable increase on natural background radiation.
Meanwhile, back at the competition venue the surf action was heating up, with Inoue Taka facing off against Horii Satoshi, the only man left in the field who could thwart Taka from sealing his national title today. Excitement was at feverpitch as Satoshi held the lead mid-way through the final heat, however Taka scraped into a nice wave in the dying minutes and rode it to the sand, clinching the win by one-tenth of a point and his maiden national title.
With the competition dusted and champion crowned, we decided to scope some of the other surf breaks nearby. Kitaizumi is one of the most consistent spots for surf on the east coast of Japan, the artificial breakwater built to protect the neighbouring power plant catching any swell and reflecting it into the beach. A quick check both north and south revealed numerous other beaches with decent waves and only a handful of surfers out. Granted, they weren’t the kind of waves you’d expect to find in Hawaii or Indonesia, but if these same waves were breaking in Chiba or Shonan, popular surf areas closer to the metropolis of Tokyo, there would be 40-50 people jostling for position on each peak. Here, you had to search for someone to surf with.
We tore ourselves from the sight of empty waves and pulled onto Route 6, back towards Tokyo. The road took us within a couple of kilometres from the centre of the nuclear catastrophe, Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. As we passed the turnoff to the nuclear power plant, currently restricted to authorised personnel, the roadside Geiger counter showed 1.96 μSv/h. While this is still within the new Japanese limit of 20 mSv/year, I was happy to drive past with the windows up.
The thing with radiation exposure is that there is no well-defined ‘safe’ limit. As witnessed after the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, some survivors lived into their 80s and 90s, while people with little exposure to artificial radiation die of cancer every day.
For many people around the world, just the mention of radiation is enough to induce a shudder, however here in Fukushima, nuclear radiation has become another fact of life. While not totally accurate, a comparison to air quality might help put things in perspective. Anyone who lives in a big city is subjecting themselves to the negative effects of air pollution, whether they are aware of it or not. And while air quality may be one reason you choose not to live in Beijing or Delhi, it won’t stop most people from an occasional trip to Sydney for shopping or a nice café lunch. By this logic, a trip to most parts of Fukushima will have no discernable negative effects on your health, while you might be wise to avoid known hot-spots with higher levels of radiation.
The reality is that our daily lives are full of risks, whether you are aware of them or not. These days a myriad of dangerous chemicals including known carcinogens can be found emanating from the walls, carpets, and detergents in many homes. Government checks may pick up any radiation in fish and agricultural products, but residual pesticides and post-harvest chemicals pass through undetected. Radiation is now a well-known risk, however that alone does not make it any more dangerous than the other risks we take in life. Despite this, Fukushima and the surrounding areas have received so much bad press that it has blown the risks, at least for short term visits, way out of proportion. My guide Kei attests to this with his story of visiting Australia for business soon after the nuclear meltdowns. Upon discovering he lives in Fukushima, people immediately shrank back and didn’t want anything to do with him, as if he was emitting radiation himself. That’s the kind of reaction that comes from lack of knowledge and bad rumours as opposed to informed decision-making. The effects of the nuclear disaster are far from over, with thousands of people as yet unable to return to their homes. The government has faced widespread criticism over its response to the disaster and has a long way to go to regain the trust of the local population. However, a lot of money and effort has gone into rebuilding the devastated areas, and those who have chosen to return deserve what help they can get, not to be shunned. For many people here, it is still going to take wave after wave
of goodwill for life to return to normal.
My head was buzzing with all these thoughts as we
sped down the highway towards Tokyo. Looking out the window, we passed beach after empty beach with tempting surf. It was too much to resist. Unsure of what to expect, I had left my surfboard at home, so we stopped by a local surf shop to rent a board and wetsuit. I couldn’t wait to jump in the water and clear my head. The shop we pulled up to happened to be run by Watanabe Hiroki, head of the Fukushima Surfing Association.
Hiroki was in his shop when the 2011 earthquake struck. He escaped to a nearby evacuation centre and watched from the hilltop as his shop was flooded by the tsunami. While the national surfing community rallied together to send water, clothes and other support, it took several months of hard work to reopen his shop, and most people wouldn’t dare go near the sea for years afterwards. In the years following the tsunami Hiroki faced an uphill battle to promote surfing in the area. Thankfully, things are beginning to return to normal with big national surfing competitions the last two years attracting hundreds of amateur surfers from all over Japan.
“Some people still don’t feel safe coming to Fukushima, and that’s Ok,” says Hiroki.
“All we can do is welcome those that choose to come. By holding these competitions, I hope to bring more positive coverage of Fukushima. Slowly people will realise that it is safe and start coming back. These large events are an important contribution to the local economy. The sea is safe, and the local government has rebuilt the foreshore with spacious parking and clean toilets. All that’s left is for the people to come back.”
With the interview finished I grabbed a board and ran to the water’s edge, paddling straight out to an empty peak. Over the next two hours I caught wave after wave, never once crossing paths with another surfer. Uncrowded surf is a rare commodity in Japan, or almost anywhere in the world for that matter. You’d have to search pretty hard in any country with surfers to find easily accessible waves of this quality with no crowds. While the triple catastrophe of 2011 has scared many people from Fukushima, as things return to normal, maybe surfing can help bring people back. As the wave of government support subsides, the Pacific Ocean continues to provide unlimited waves of her own. Uncrowded surf is plentiful in Fukushima, but once people realise the high potential and minimal risks, it may not stay that way for long!