Fukushima disaster zone now hot spot for 'dark tourism'

A visitor touring Namie, Fukushima, last month. The disaster-hit areas draw over 2,000 annual visitors, keen to see the aftermath of the nuclear accident five years ago.
A visitor touring Namie, Fukushima, last month. The disaster-hit areas draw over 2,000 annual visitors, keen to see the aftermath of the nuclear accident five years ago.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

NAMIE (Japan) • Mr Shinichi Niitsuma enthusiastically shows visitors the attractions of the small town of Namie: its tsunami-hit coastline, abandoned houses and hills overlooking the radiation-infested reactors of the disabled Fukushima nuclear plant.

Five years after the disaster emptied much of Japan's north-eastern coast, tourism is giving locals of the abandoned town a chance to exorcise the horrors of the past.

Like the Nazi concentration camps in Poland or Ground Zero in New York, the areas devastated by the disaster have become hot spots for "dark tourism" and annually draw over 2,000 visitors keen to see the aftermath of the worst nuclear accident in a quarter century.

 

"There is no place like Fukushima - except maybe Chernobyl - to see how terrible a nuclear accident is," Mr Niitsuma said, referring to the 1986 accident in Ukraine.

"I want visitors to see this ghost town, which is not just a mere legacy but clear and present despair," he added, as he drove visitors down the main street of Namie, which lies just 8km from the stricken plant.

On March 11, 2011, a magnitude- 9.0 undersea earthquake off Japan's north-eastern coast sparked a massive tsunami that swept ashore, leaving 19,000 people dead or missing.

PROGRESS NOT VISIBLE

TV and newspapers report reconstruction is making progress and life is returning to normal. But in reality, nothing has changed here.

MS CHIKA KANEZAWA, participant of a tour to disaster-hit areas.

Namie's residents were evacuated after the tsunami sent the nuclear plant into meltdown and no one has yet been allowed to move back because of radiation concerns.

Mr Niitsuma, 70, is one of 10 local volunteer guides organising tours to sights in Namie and other Fukushima communities, including tightly regulated restricted areas.

They take visitors through the shells of buildings left untouched as extremely high levels of radiation hamper demolition work. The guides use monitoring dosimeters to avoid radiation "hot spots".

A tsunami-hit elementary school is another stop on the morbid tour. Clocks on the classroom walls are stopped at 3:38pm, the exact moment the killer waves swept ashore.

In the gymnasium, a banner for the 2011 graduation still hangs over a stage and the crippled plant is visible through shattered windows.

Former high school teacher Akiko Onuki, 61, survived the tsunami that claimed the lives of six of her students and one colleague, and is now one of the volunteer guides. "We must ensure there are no more Fukushimas," Ms Onuki said of her reasons for wanting to show tourists her devastated former home.

Ms Chika Kanezawa, a tour participant, said she was "shocked" by the conditions. "TV and newspapers report reconstruction is making progress and life is returning to normal," said the 42-year-old from Saitama, north of Tokyo. "But in reality, nothing has changed here."

Conservation group Greenpeace said last week that the environmental impact of the Fukushima nuclear crisis on nearby forests is beginning to be seen and will be a source of contamination for years. It said signs of mutations in trees and DNA-damaged worms were appearing, while "vast stocks of radiation" mean forests cannot be decontaminated.

In a report, the group cited "apparent increases in growth mutations of fir trees... heritable mutations in pale blue grass butterfly populations" and "DNA-damaged worms in highly contaminated areas".

Dairy farmer Masami Yoshizawa still keeps some 300 cows in Namie, in defiance of a government order to have them slaughtered.

As he showed the herd to tourists, he said he keeps the cattle alive in protest against plant operator Tokyo Electric Power and the government. "I want to tell people all over the world: What happened to me may happen to you tomorrow."

The disaster forced all of Japan's dozens of reactors offline for about two years in the face of public worries over safety and fears of radiation exposure. But the government has pushed to restart reactors, claiming that the resource-poor country needs nuclear power.

English teacher Tom Bridges, who lives in Saitama, said he was able to share the victims' anger and frustration through the tour. "It's not a happy trip, but it's a necessary trip," he said.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 07, 2016, with the headline 'Fukushima disaster zone now hot spot for 'dark tourism''. Print Edition | Subscribe