Japan’s Nuclear Zone: William T. Vollmann Speaks to Survivors

A month after the earthquake crippled the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, novelist William T. Vollmann returned to survey the radiation levels and talk to survivors.

In an exclusive excerpt from Into The Forbidden Zone, acclaimed novelist William T. Vollmann returns to northern Japan a month after the earthquake crippled the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant to survey the radiation levels and talk to survivors.

As we twisted up through the yellow-green hills toward Ono, the bamboos shining in the sun, a man working the soil; that wasn’t yet prohibited here, as it already was in Iitate Village, which lay 40 kilometers to the northwest of the plant and hence outside both evacuation zones; it was said that the inhabitants of Iitate would soon have to evacuate.

I found myself checking the dosimeter for radiation levels more often than usual. (In general, 0.05 millirems or less per hour falls within the bounds of normal background exposure, while even 0.1 millirem can be considered unexceptional.) The driver was silent. My upper lip sweated within the mask. Coming down into Ono we saw some broken stone along the road-edge which might have had nothing to do with the earthquake, and a few specks of snow on the mountainside. It seemed like such a beautiful place to go hill-wandering. The driver pointed out some nara trees (good for growing mushrooms, he said; and a few days later, the news screen on the bullet train from Hiroshima to Tokyo announced that mushrooms in a certain zone near the reactor could no longer be harvested, having exceeded the legal radiation limit). Nearly everywhere I looked in Ono there were small square garden plots where vegetables were coming in, in neat rows, young and green; were they poisonous? The sun was strangely warm on my wrists, or perhaps they were tingling from the potassium iodine. “They are farmers,” the driver remarked with satisfaction; and I knew that he too must have had rural origins.

In the center of Tamura City (a valley paved with tiled houses) there were many lovingly manicured pines, and behind people’s hedges sometimes rose the irregularly phallic boulders so beloved of Japanese gardeners. The convenience stores had not closed. We left Tamura, which was, the driver informed us, a new conglomeration of small villages regathered for certain administrative benefits; I wondered whether the place would remain inhabited. A police car slowly rolled up the hill ahead of us on the quake-cracked road, the cruiser’s lights flashing. Then it turned around. “Maybe he’s too close to the radiation!” laughed the driver, and who can say he was not correct?

We stopped to chat with an old man in boots and waders and a fishing cap; across his shoulders he bore one of those long poles from which harvested rice is hung to dry. He explained that the farmers could not sell their products now.

Later the taxi driver, who had spoken with him, remarked that this fellow had complained of a burning, tingling sensation, which of course is one of the first symptoms of massive radiation exposure.

“Is it safe here?” I inquired.

“They don’t tell us that it’s safe.”

Bowing and thanking him, we returned to the taxi.

Here came a vehicle on the otherwise empty road; our driver asked the old lady at the wheel if we could get to Kawauchi. Politely covering her mouth all the while, she said: “You can go.” The meter remained at 2.7 millirems.

Now we paralleled the river, beyond whose far edge grew many slender-trunked nara trees; apparently they were Japanese oaks. I asked the driver to stop. Greenness was welling up in what had been until not long ago a winter forest. I had a strange, not quite eerie feeling. So beautiful, the green lichens on the boulders! In the cool shade of the cedar trees the ground was so thick with needle-leaves that my steps grew soundless. Sunlight came in low and green on the sides of the trees. An unknown bird whistled its two-toned call over and over. I would have liked to picnic sitting on one of these low fat boulders. Delighting in the cool wind at my back, whose degree of particulate contamination was of course unknown, I strolled across a little bridge toward the pinkish-gray nara trees, beyond which rose another wall of cedars. A stand of young green bamboos was growing beside me. Looking down into the jade stream with its white fans and ribbons of foam emerging from each mossy boulder-islet, I forgot where I was, and for a moment removed my mask, which might have been useless anyhow.

We rolled along, and at the side of the road, not long after we had seen some wooden boxes which the driver said were employed for the collection of wild bees, a sandwich-board-type sign unimpressively announced: ENTRY RESTRICTED BY POLICE. And so we came into Kawauchi Village, 10 kilometers from the inner ring. The houses were silent. The driver said, “They may have evacuated. This is no good.”

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On the hillside just off the road rose a pleasant wooden house. Seeing an old man in wading boots performing some chore, I asked the driver to stop again, and the interpreter and I went out to introduce ourselves to Mr. Sato Yoshimi, who said: “I went to Koriyama to evacuate, but just returned today.”

“Why did you return?”

“I’ve been there at Big Palette for about a month, and I just had to look at my house. I’ll go back to Big Palette today.”

“What made you choose to move there?”

“People here were told: If you’re within 20 kilometers, you have to evacuate. If you’re within 30 kilometers, you might want to. So, to be on the safe side, this village was specified for evacuation.”

I did not completely understand this; but who precisely had specified the evacuation, and how voluntary it was, might not be something the broken-toothed old man cared to spell out. His white mask hung down between chin and neck.

“How did you experience the earthquake?”

“I was at the site,” he answered. “I was working at the Number Four Turbine. I’ve been working at the reactor for more than 30 years.”

“Was it a good job?”

“Well, before the accident I enjoyed it. You never imagined . . .”

“And then what happened?”

“It was about 2:30. Within the building the tremor was terrible, and the lights started to fall. Lots of sand and dust—you couldn’t see where you were going. I was within the controlled area, where you have to wear protective gear specified by Tepco, and you have your own dosimeter.”

“Do you still have it?”

“I left it in the reactor building.”

“Did you see the tsunami?”

“I immediately evacuated before it came. From the Number Four building I went on foot with my colleagues. There was lots of water leaking from pipes, since the ground had sunk. You work in a team—six people. All of us evacuated together. There is an office four kilometers from there. We checked in there. When everyone had arrived, we were told to go wherever on our own responsibility.”

His employer was a certain subcontractor of Tepco, called Nito Resin. They were still paying him, he said; he had received last month’s salary.

“How long do you suppose you’ll be living at Big Palette?”

“I don’t know. It depends on the radiation here. Unless the restriction is lifted, I don’t think I can come back. Here it’s pretty low, 0.5 or 0.6 millisieverts. My daughter is within the 20-kilometer limit. So she and her mother went to see their home. I think they can enter for a short time.”

A brown creek flowed beneath the cypresses at the edge of his steep lot. Across the road lay his garden: daikons, green onions, cabbage, long beans. I wish I could tell you whether anyone ought to have eaten what he was growing.

Passing more dry rice fields, my forehead burning and itching, perhaps from an insect bite, we passed two dogs running loose outside the Kawauchi municipal office and reached the inner ring where a line of police stood in their blue vests, with the reflective yellow stripes, their white masks covering their chins to the bridges of their noises, and their white hats firm and straight over their eyes, their white-gloved hands open at their sides and their boots shining. They prohibited us from going farther, so I had the taxi driver turn right and park a block away, on a street where locals drove in and out of an unmanned checkpoint as they pleased, lifting the flimsy barrier aside. These people were always in a hurry. Whenever the interpreter and I waved them down, they would always say, in violation of their famous Tohoku politeness, “No time!” Invariably, they were headed for Big Palette.

I strolled into the forbidden zone, just so I could say I had done it. The interpreter took a cautious step or two behind me, then stopped. The driver sat with the windows rolled up. Every time I looked at him, he anxiously started his engine. Should I have insisted that he continue into the involuntary evacuation zone? My dosimeter had not registered any recent increase; regarding gamma rays the situation seemed safe enough, and perhaps this story would have been more dramatic had I been pushier, but then again perhaps not, for what would we have seen but more empty houses, and then quake and tsunami damage, and then the reactor, which from drone photographs in the newspaper resembled any number of muddy construction sites? I think the driver would have done it if I had asked; as for my loyal, courageous interpreter, she said simply, “I will follow you.” Perhaps she and I should have suited up with respirators, yellow kitchen gloves and all the rest of it, and then walked toward Plant No. 1. Honestly, I lacked the ruthlessness to ask it of her.

The birds were singing, the plants were growing, and the trees were coming into flower. It was very warm now. Moss grew on a wall, and in the deserted houses the curtains were all drawn. If you can, try to see those curtained houses and the shadows on their silver-ringed roof tiles, the blue flowers in someone’s backyard, which like the other lawns there still appeared decently trimmed, probably due to the coolness of the season. At the side of another house, a few potted houseplants had begun to wither, but the others still looked perfect. Perhaps more people returned home from Big Palette than was generally imagined.

Behind an outer door, an inner sliding partition was wide open. We called and called, but no one answered. I informed the checkpoint police, since the previous night’s taxi driver had remarked that burglars had begun to take advantage of the evacuation.

From the main checkpoint a bus emerged, then a truck, then three cars, the police waving them all through with their white-gloved hands before they reclosed the barrier, and these vehicles all headed back in the direction of Koriyama. Then a man on a motorcycle approached them from our side.

“Unless your purpose is very strong I cannot allow you,” a policeman told him.

“But I have a brother inside. Can I go another way?”

“You may be able to advance and go a little farther,” said the policeman.

So the motorcyclist proceeded to the unmanned checkpoint that the interpreter and I had breached. Later the taxi driver, who had spoken with him, remarked that this fellow had complained of a burning, tingling sensation, which of course is one of the first symptoms of massive radiation exposure. Perhaps it was psychosomatic, or he had some sort of allergic reaction; nobody we asked in Koriyama, even at Big Palette, had heard of anybody getting radiation sickness.

Then the driver summoned us. He had discovered an actual inhabitant: bearded and graying, with a very red workingman’s face, in a blue slicker and cap; he must have been about 50. He wore green gloves and a mask and green boots. The metal grating of the Showa Shell service station was only half-raised. He stooped just outside, hosing down a patch of pavement. He worked unceasingly while he spoke with us. He would not allow us into his house next door, in whose second-story window the drapes parted for an instant and a lovely feminine hand flickered, folding a towel over the curtain rod; this wife or daughter must be doing laundry indoors. The drapes closed again. The workingman said, “This is the stay-at-home area. This is my area. We’ll leave soon. There’s a cat we left to stay inside, and we felt so sad not to let it out. I’m the head of the fire department here, so I come back every day, and every day I check the radiation level at the village office. Today is 0.38 millisieverts. On the 17th, everyone evacuated...”

He worked on, never stopping until I made him a present of my best respirator, at which point he paused to bow deeply, then hurried back to work.

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William T. Vollmann is the author of nine novels, including Europe Central , winner of the National Book Award. He has also written three collections of stories, a memoir, and five works of nonfiction, most recently Into the Forbidden Zone: A Trip Through Hell and High Water in Post-Earthquake Japan from which this was adapted. He is the recipient of the Whiting Writers Award, the PEN Center USA West Award, and the Strauss Living Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.