What does the future hold for the people of Fukushima? Returning to pre-March 2011 life is just not conceivable, as large coastal areas were wiped out by the tsunami and/or contaminated by radioactivity, leaving behind a burden for decades. Obviously, the series of catastrophes which struck the Prefecture – the earthquake, the tsunami and the severe nuclear accident – left unforgettable scars in people’s hearts and minds. How could it be otherwise?
Contemplating the future remained beyond reach for months and even years for the people who were uprooted, disconnected from “life as usual”, helpless to deal with day-to-day concerns. But something stronger than acceptance of misfortune pushed some people forward to a point where, four years later, they recovered the ability to think about tomorrow…
A different future began to appear on the horizon, built upon the experience gained in these past few years, upon mutual understanding and trust, upon free choice, hopes and dreams. A future underpinned by enhanced vigilance regarding the potential risks of the damaged plant. Some people even plan to continue wearing their dosimeters in the coming years, just in case.

Hopes and dreams are fueled by daily life experience, starting with the contemplation of nature, meals shared in good company, children playing and shouting outside, cultural events and celebrations… Fukushima people express their profound attachment to their homeland, the beauty of its landscapes, the quality of its food, and the liveliness of its traditions through pictures that they use to take in any season.

Turning point

In spite of tremendous efforts to decontaminate, remediate and rebuild, the situation in several places in Fukushima Prefecture – such as Hamadori – is far from being back to normal and this will continue in the foreseeable future. But things are on the move and, for most people participating in the Dialogues, regaining control over their lives is no longer unthinkable. “We have reached the point where people who take actions can express themselves and are able to explain what they do,” emphasized one of the participants in the Dialogue seminars. “I have the feeling that the people of Fukushima Prefecture have, to some extent, regained self-confidence,” Professor Ohtsura Niwa corroborated. A trend that became increasingly tangible seminar after seminar, as reported by the participants. “Many people here are looking ahead. However, we should not forget those who are still suffering and cannot look forward,” tempered another participant.

« We should have new ideas and new plans,
and with that vision we can make something
better than anything else in the world now.
I feel we have been given the chance to do this. »
kuni kanno, presently farmer, Iitate village

Children

The very essence of the future, children are the focal point of concerns and the key reason for ongoing efforts. Their education sometimes crystallizes divergent views among family members and is a major challenge for parents who want the best for their offspring. This became a real headache for those living in Fukushima, in contaminated territory or in exile, in a region foreign to them. Health, education, personal development… each aspect of a child’s life raised doubts in parents’ minds about whether they had made the right decision for their kids. Here even more than elsewhere perhaps, dialogue with childcare professionals and radiation protection experts proved essential for mothers and fathers seeking new reference points to organize their children’s daily lives. Drawing upon their individual and collective experience since March 2011, Fukushima families were obviously particularly aware of their environmental legacy. “If I give up, my son will have no choice!” claimed Shinya Endo at the 9th Dialogue seminar, meaning that if he ended up with renouncing to cultivate the paddies inherited from his forefathers, he would no longer be in a position to leave up to his son the decision to continue farming in the future. To Mr. Endo, the continuation of this activity and the transmission of the land from generation to generation are a way to uphold the tradition. His claim at the seminar was testament to the importance he placed in this matter.

A residential area gets rebuilt

New housing is under construction next to Suetsugi station to accommodate the inhabitants of the district driven from their home the tsunami.

New projects in Suetsugi

The coastal district of Iwaki had been severely hit by the earthquake and subsequent tsunami that had destroyed buildings and infrastructure in March 2011. Now, the traces from the disaster tend to fade with new build showing up in the landscape, giving the community reasons to believe in its future. Suetsugi Dayori, the newsletter published by the local residents, reports in its November 2015 edition on the work in progress in the district.

Reconstruction in progress in coastal areas struck by the tsunami

Embankment work near the river mouth is well advanced to protect the land against tsunamis, and the destroyed Suetsugi bridge is now replaced by a new, more robust structure, that connects the two river banks again.

Communities

In a country used to relying on the strength of its social fabric, families and communities were torn apart, worsening the feeling of helplessness and abandonment. Still, over time, the community is gradually becoming a crucible for cooperation when it comes to restoring living conditions through measurements and discussions of the resulting data, meetings with experts, knowledge acquisition, decision-making, information and feedback on achievements, projects and other initiatives.
Since the disaster, an increasing number of people in Fukushima have done a great job in helping each other improve their living environment within a supportive community and sharing their experience with people outside the community. This called for acknowledgement of differences in values and approaches – the very basis of mutual understanding – and recognition of each person’s temperament, whether upbeat or downbeat, loud or silent, and respect for each individual’s free choice.
Keeping a community alive when those who are part of it are scattered in multiple locations is the particular challenge still to be taken up by many municipalities. In such a situation, is it possible to consider a future together?

September 13th, 2015, Date City Hall. All of a sudden, as the end of the 12th and last Dialogue seminar entitled “Experience we have gained together” approached, the audience was gripped by intense emotion. ICRP’s Jacques Lochard, co-chair of the twelve Dialogue seminars together with Junichiro Tada, Director of the Radiation Safety Forum, bade farewell to the participants – farmers, housewives, local officials, journalists, radiologists, photographers and municipal staff – who had supported, each in their own way, a four-year initiative aimed primarily at empowering the residents of Fukushima to overcome the difficulties of living in a contaminated territory. At that very moment, everyone realized the full extent of the progress made together over the past four years… The emotional surge was thus linked to the awareness of having gone through a shared human adventure and of the significance of the work performed together.
In a society where it is good form to keep quiet about one’s problems for fear of bothering others and disrupting overall harmony, the Dialogue seminars gave everyone the possibility of releasing emotions, anxiety, anger and doubts, of expressing divergent views on the issues, of questioning experts directly, of putting forward proposals… and, in the process, of shifting their own status from helpless on-lookers to forward-looking stakeholders.
What happened from November 2011 to September 2015 is a unique example of democracy in action, where a community is not regarded as a passive herd of followers but as the sum of individuals capable of making decisions for themselves based on free will, and for others based on mutual respect as well as mutual trust.
As the final curtain lowered on a cycle of participatory meetings that changed their lives, the participants in the Dialogues now see the future as an improvement process that will continue, although in a different form. Despite the limited number of individuals and communities which participated, the Dialogues amassed considerable experience, and the time had come to share it.

A holistic impact on life

The first lesson learned is that radioactivity is not simply a matter of health effects from exposure. The practical – and psychological – impact of its intrusion into someone’s life is a sudden loss of control: what shall I or shouldn’t I do? This constant doubt about every little thing – going out, coming back, opening windows to air the interior of the house, drinking, eating, letting children play outside or sending them to school, etc. – is the source of much concern and a sense of helplessness.
Over time, this leads to tense relations among people who have lost their self-confidence and trust in each other, and particularly in authorities and experts. The feeling of living in a “soiled” environment, of being “tainted” by contamination can translate into a loss of self-respect. This is worsened by a growing feeling of exclusion in tandem with steps taken to improve the radiological situation (decontamination, local traffic bans, restrictions on food consumption, etc.), as the latter tend to create further disruptions. For those who decided – or were compelled – to leave, radioactivity was perceived as an intruder who forced them off their lands into indeterminate exile. The unspeakable pain of being uprooted… and the ongoing dilemma: to return or not to return?

Everyone can do something

The radiological consequences of the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant utterly paralyzed most residents, yet it revealed character traits in others: a propensity for involvement, for leadership and for action on behalf of the community. Their resolute attitude in facing a complex situation enabled joint efforts by residents, local authorities and advising experts to identify a path forward. In some areas, such as Date City, the momentum was stimulated by local authorities; in others, such as Suetsugi and Hippo (Hippo is part of the town of Marumori in the south of Miyagi prefecture), residents themselves took the initiative. In both cases, addressing residents’ practical concerns required the support of experts from a variety of backgrounds who, for many of them, made commitments as individuals, not as representatives of institutions. This unique situation was key in building trust between residents and experts who accompanied them over time, forging a bond as though they were part of the community.

Ground and net: two wheels to move forward

To symbolize the resources Fukushima residents could draw upon in their effort to regain some control over their life, Ethos in Fukushima designed a bicycle, which front wheel was relying upon the ground, the rear wheel upon the Internet. Expert knowledge stored on the baggage racks is here to answer the questions from the residents, who hold the handlebar, steering the bicycle.

No frills! Keep it simple

Dialogue on an equal footing between residents and experts was instrumental in helping the people of Fukushima find new landmarks to rebuild their lives. The characteristic feature of such dialogue was its “resident-centricity”, i.e. the creation of an inhabitant-expert relationship focused on the needs of the people of Fukushima, with some experts even moving to Fukushima to share more fully in the population’s concerns. This gave them a special observation point to grasp the needs and expectations of the people. Among the lessons learned is the difficulty of talking about the risks and effects associated with exposure to ionizing radiation. Residents expected the experts to be modest, given the uncertainties and limits of current knowledge, to distinguish between science and judgments, and above all, to respect individual values and choices. Last but not least, they were expected to understand that protecting themselves against radiation is only one of the problems residents face. Radiation protection is not here to control people’s lives, but to help people control their own lives. 

Expertise is here to be shared

A major lesson learned from the Dialogues is that applying off-the-shelf methods to people’s real problems is of little help. To efficiently address the issues that residents must grapple with in day-to-day life, a process for building expertise together must be set up. This means, firstly, designating places for the experts to listen to and discuss the questions, concerns, challenges and expectations of those who are struggling with difficult situations. Shared expertise or “co-expertise” also builds on joint assessments by locals and experts of people’s circumstances and of the situation in their community; on setting up projects to address the issues identified as most important at the individual and community levels, with support from local experts, professionals and authorities; and on a critical review of the results obtained and the dissemination of the experience gained.

It takes time to change the perspective
from “Authorities make plans for the population”
to “Authorities make plans with the population”.

Co-developed “practical radiation protection culture”

By sharing expertise to address concrete issues, many people involved in the Dialogue seminars gradually developed a practical approach to radiation protection. It is an approach which draws on the availability of suitable equipment to allow people to perform their own measurements and to become acquainted with a new vocabulary – ambient levels, external and internal doses, product contamination, etc. – foreign to their daily lives, but which they need to acquire overnight in order to make sense out of the measurement results. Building on their practical radiation protection culture, individuals are in a position to make their own decisions and protect themselves at the individual or collective levels (family, local community, etc.) by discussing the measurement results among themselves with input from the experts. As they recover the power of making decisions, many people of Fukushima involved in the Dialogue seminars gradually undertook concrete projects, in a manner similar to that of Belarus, the major difference being the availability of measurement equipment to characterize the radiological situation and the role of social media in sharing the information.
Among other leverage, the practicality of this radiation protection culture makes it possible to tangibly improve living conditions in a contaminated territory and to get people thinking about their future again.

In a nutshell

Reducing four years of discussions and experiments to a couple of lessons learned is no easy task. However, the experience shared over the course of the 12 Dialogues corroborates some essential conclusions based on the feedback from the work performed in the contaminated territories after the Chernobyl accident, notably in Belarus and Norway.
The first – and most important – is that it is essential for residents to be able to measure, by themselves and for themselves, the presence of radioactivity in their immediate environment. Sharing these measurements through dialogue enables everyone to communicate their concerns, emotions, worries and aspirations. This dialogue gradually lays the groundwork for local initiatives that, in turn, help individuals to regain control over their daily lives and once again act according to their desires and wishes.
Through sustained interaction and cooperation focused on these local initiatives, both radiation experts and residents of the affected communities can take radiation-protection actions that will restore the living conditions of the residents, helping them to recover their dignity and well-being.
Ultimately, the invaluable lessons learned through this process should be preserved and disseminated within the prefecture and beyond, to be called upon if a comparable situation occurs elsewhere in the world.

credits and
acknowledgements