A rare glimpse inside Fukushima

By Sheila Burt

Two cars, as if swept away by an unearthly force, lay overturned in a field of overgrown weeds; a storefront window remains in shatters, rust forming on surrounding scraps of metal left inside; a clock, stopped exactly at 2:46 p.m. when the Great East Japan Earthquake struck more than three years ago, hangs low from an abandoned hair salon.

For his inaugural trip to Japan in January, Chicago photographer and sociologist David Schalliol captured these and nearly 3,000 other images during his 10-day trip — three of which were spent traveling around the stricken Tohoku area.

With help from a Japanese friend, Schalliol gained access into Tomioka, Fukushima, an abandoned town on the edge of the nuclear exclusion zone, southwest of the Daiichi nuclear power plant, and close to the Fukushima Daini plant. Tomioka has been closed to the public since residents were forced to evacuate as the nuclear crisis grew more unstable in days following the earthquake and tsunami. Nearly all of the town’s estimated 16,000 residents fled to surrounding areas or larger cities elsewhere in Japan; they are among approximately 267,000 individuals who remain displaced from their homes more than three years after the triple disasters.

“I had heard a lot about what had happened [in Tohoku] immediately after the disasters of the earthquake and tsunami, trailed quickly by the nuclear disaster. But I didn’t have a sense of what was going on,” Schalliol says. “Rather than doing the normal thing where I think typical visitors of Japan spend a big chunk of time in the Tokyo area, we decided it’d be much better to be able to go and get a chance and really have the opportunity to experience [Tohoku] and share those experiences with others.”

Schalliol, an experienced photographer and PhD student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago, was also in Japan to attend a Kobe exhibition displaying work from his recently released book, "Isolated Building Studies," published by UTAKATADO in Japan. Isolated Building Studies explores changing urban landscapes through photographs of buildings that standalone in Chicago’s diverse yet segregated neighborhoods — images that Schalliol says the Japanese considered inherently American.

While much of his trip was spent in urban Japan and around other parts of Tohoku outside of Fukushima, Schalliol spent about three hours in Tomioka with his Japanese friend and the town’s deputy mayor, Hirofumi Sanpei. Schalliol says Sanpei is eager to show visitors a rare glimpse inside his beloved town, though going back to Tomioka is always an emotional journey for him.

“He worried about his visual memory of the place being changed. These sites in some cases are so emotionally rich and charged and jubilant in his mind. The more time he spent there [after the disaster], the more he felt like it was being contaminated in some kind of way. This is one of the things that I’m sure everyone living in that region is dealing with on a day-to-day basis,” Schalliol says.

In Tomioka, Schalliol photographed what is left of essentially a “ghost town.” He estimates he was about five miles from the crippled plant. During his time in Tomioka, he wore protective coverings and carried a radiation monitor, which showed him how much radiation levels could vary within spaces as small as a parking lot. According to Schalliol, the areas he visited ranged between 0.07 μSv (microsieverts) in the mountains to 4.5 μSv close to one of the town’s former train stations (based on official monitors scattered throughout the town). His personal monitor read between 0.2 μSv and 0.7 μSv. (For comparison, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that a chest x-ray contains about 100 μSv; cross-country plane travel about 50 μSv, though the type of radiation in Fukushima may be absorbed more easily).

When comparing what he saw in Fukushima to towns ravaged much more violently by the tsunami along the coast, Schalliol says the abandoned areas of Fukushima are in a class of their own. As he toured Tomioka, Schalliol was startled to hear public service announcements still broadcasted in the streets even though nearly all residents have left — he describes this as one of the eeriest parts of his visit.

“The areas that weren’t affected by the nuclear problem had this sort of cleared landscape, sanitized landscape,” he explains. “But the areas more affected by the nuclear issues appeared much more like disaster sites. In some ways, it was harder and easier to relate to them as disaster sites. The towns in the nuclear affected areas have this foreboding emptiness. It’s a very different experience. It’s one of being in a city that is no longer occupied.”

Yet throughout his trip — in Tomioka and elsewhere in Tohoku — Schalliol also saw surprising glimmers hope: in particular, a group of employees from a local seafood company enjoying a barbecue in a small bayside town that was severely damaged by the tsunami.

“It was interesting to observe not so much what they said but [to see] these people having a celebration of persistence in a sight that had been obliterated,” he says. “A celebratory food experience at the site of this bay was so important to the company.”

Like his past work, much of Schalliol’s photographs of Tohoku intentionally focus on buildings and landscape, but he says the residents he spoke to were generally optimistic about the future. Although he doesn’t have any specific plans to publish his photographs outside of his blog, he is considering organizing a photo exhibition in Chicago.

“I didn’t feel fully comfortable asking my way into people’s lives in that kind of way, so I didn’t take photographs of many people. I felt like I had a sense of parameters of what I could accomplish in the period, and that meant getting a general sense of people’s feelings of what is happening in the area and a broader sense of what’s happening with the landscape,” Schalliol explains. “My main objective was to update myself and to share that experience with others about what was happening and how far things have come. In some cases that may mean there is no apparent progress; in other cases, that may mean life appears to be unchanged in some places; and in other places, there is sort of massive transformation.”

More of Schalliol’s work, and a very moving and informative personal essay about his time spent in Tohoku, can be read on his blog.

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