My Close Encounter With the Toxic Pigs of Fukushima
Filmmaker Otto Bell writes about his new film “The Toxic Pigs of Fukushima,” and surveying the devastation (and brave souls) left behind from the disaster.
Almost 10 years ago to the day, a 9.1-magnitude, undersea-megathrust earthquake created a 120-foot tsunami that swept across coastal towns and villages of eastern Japan, most notably triggering Level 7 meltdowns at three reactors in the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant complex. On March 11, 2011, a radioactive cloud the size of Connecticut spewed across this picturesque prefecture and beyond, sending over 200,000 residents fleeing for their lives. Prior to the pandemic I visited Fukushima with a small film crew to find out how life had changed for the handful of brave citizens who had chosen to remain and eke out an existence in the shadow of this tragic disaster.
Our first taste of Fukushima was a lonely hotel a few miles from the crippled reactors. This new budget lodging was not an early sign of some bright recovery, but more of a modern flop house built specifically to house the seemingly endless stream of clean-up workers who were several years into a largely futile task with no clear end in sight. The radiation that has come to define this place will not be entirely gone for 120 years. It was rainy season when we got there, and Caesium-137 was constantly washing down from the mountainous forests that surround the coastal region, polluting the area anew. The mood was low on hope, and that became the governing tone of my short documentary The Toxic Pigs of Fukushima.
It was the animals that brought me to this forgotten place. I had read reports that in the absence of humans, emboldened wild boars had come down from the woods and overtaken the abandoned streets and houses of the evacuated towns and villages in Fukushima. Boars are omnivores—they eat anything and everything—and scientific tests were returning radiation readings over 300 times higher than accepted safety levels. These “toxic pigs” seemed to me to be an interesting benchmark for the ecosystem at large, and perhaps a fitting way in to what life was like in the aftermath of the meltdown.
Our arrival coincided with a push by the Japanese government to encourage resettlement ahead of the Olympic Games. Local hunters had been empowered to dispose of the invasive boars, and we began to follow them on their heart-wrenching daily duties. To be clear, these hunters were not gung-ho in any way; we noticed they did this grim work reluctantly, sorry that they could not even eat what they killed. The hunters took us deep into an eerie, post-apocalyptic landscape. We think our roads and structures will leave indelible fingerprints on the world, but the Fukushima I found was almost absent of people and characterized by an explosion of dust, cobwebs, weeds, and vines. We quickly realized that in less than a decade, nature had clawed back what was always hers.
The symbols of our “progress”—video game consoles, packaged food, a child’s saxophone, a Porsche sports car—all lay frozen in place, forgotten in haste, and now degraded by time and radiation. When you see this devastation first-hand, you can begin to understand why less than 10 percent of evacuees have made the tough decision to return to the homes and lives they once knew here. In today’s parlance, it felt a bit like standing next to someone indoors, having a coughing fit, without a mask on, constantly. You did not need to look at your personal Geiger counter to measure the omnipresent threat of the radiation—you could almost feel it weighing invisibly upon you.
There are a small number of citizens who never really left the area however, and we focused our cameras on them. As we followed the hunters we bumped into farmers, activists, contractors, and grieving family members. It felt right to branch off and memorialize their stories. Many were older, sheltering in place out of respect to their ancestors, and resigned to the fact that old age would claim them before the effects of radiation poisoning ever did. Most told us they felt forgotten by the authorities—or worse—stigmatized by the wider Japanese population: a farmer who had recently visited Tokyo quoted city folk as saying, “Don’t marry girls from Fukushima.”
A low-level sense of despair over this lack of progress was a recurring theme. The leader of the local hunting club recounted how he had physically carried his severely disabled son out of town on the day of the disaster, masticating bread to feed to him along the way. He dejectedly told us he has seen no evidence that the government learned any lessons about the plight of the less-abled during natural disasters. Similarly, Dr. Sachihiko Fuse told us that rising thyroid cancer rates among survivors have been pushed aside as a symptom of “over-testing.”
In fairness to the more disgruntled residents, there is something of a pattern here. When investigative journalists from the quality broadsheet Asahi Shimbun started publishing worrying stories about the organized crime syndicates and sub-optimal safety standards for clean-up crews in Fukushima, the unit was promptly shut down on the grounds that the reporters had displayed “an excessive sense of mission in their monitoring of authorities.” Indeed, the powers that be seem more interested in turning the page and promoting positive stories about the recovery; like announcing Azuma Stadium as the home for Olympic baseball and softball, just 50 miles from the disaster site.
Despite the sadness and fumbling, there are some genuine signs of hope to be found in Fukushima. Grassroots organisations like “Tomioka Will Rise Again” are striving to reopen local businesses. Fishermen and farmers are fighting to prove the cleanliness of their once-revered produce. A profound art project, “Don’t Follow The Wind,” seeks to provoke honest reflection. For my part, I will never forget and will always be grateful for the warm welcome and gracious hospitality we received from everyone we met in the area.
Those who chose to remain are rightly proud of what they have endured and display great fortitude in holding out and working toward a brighter future. One green shoot we visited was the local school. The kindly headmaster was clearly committed to his calling and had arranged a minibus to pick up his students, so they could avoid any encounters with the wild boars. As with everyone we met in Fukushima, a sense of duty weighed heavily upon him: “It’s our responsibility to make this a safe school anyone could look at and feel good about,” he told me. His school was built for 1,500 students, but “currently we have 26” he said as a little girl walked past with a Geiger counter in her hand. “This is how we’ll make a new town. This school will be the beginning.” A promising sentiment which he followed with the sad truth of the matter: “Not in two or three years. I’m thinking 10, 20 years ahead.”
The Toxic Pigs of Fukushima premieres Jan. 31 on Vice TV.