In Japan, Many Still Living On The Edge

Apr 10, 2011



The government of Japan has established a 12-mile evacuation zone around the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant. Within the 12- to 20-mile zone, people can remain where they are, but they must stay indoors because the reactors are leaking radiation into the air.

Outside the danger zone, people are trying to resume normal lives, but it's not so easy, as NPR's John Burnett reports from the city of Soma.

JOHN BURNETT: The tsunami wrecked the port of Soma. A construction excavator is cleaning up a cavernous warehouse, making strange, Godzilla-like sounds that echo across this forlorn waterfront.

In this fishing and factory town of 38,000, known for its annual samurai reenactment festival, they're living on the edge. Eight miles toward the nuclear plant, on the coast road, is Minamisoma, or South Soma, which is a ghost town. Most people have fled because it's inside the danger zone.

Here in Soma, there's supposed to be nothing to worry about, at the moment.

On Thursday, the government said it's considering expanding the mandatory restricted zone because people in the area may be exposed to dangerous accumulated doses of radiation. Such is the precarious reality in Soma.

(Soundbite of music)

BURNETT: Across from the train station is a traditional Japanese noodle restaurant. Diners sit on tatami mats and eat at low tables. On either side of the entrance are small piles of salt, thought to purify the restaurant and ward off demons and bad luck. In these tense times, owner Yoshitake Sasaki depends on more than salt to keep him safe.

Mr. YOSHITAKE SASAKI: (Through translator) We have to believe. We're not just getting our information from Tokyo Electric. We're getting it from the government, the nuclear safety commish and other sources. For us, life is not that different than before the disaster. The level of radiation is so low that it doesn't even have an effect on our health.

BURNETT: And he excuses himself to put a batch of noodles into a pot of boiling water.

A torrent of noise pours out of the doors of a pachinko parlor in Soma. Pachinko is a cross between pinball and slot machine gambling. Patrons sit in a haze of cigarette smoke, mindlessly feeding silver balls into flashing machines waiting for a payoff.

The manager, Yuske Kameda(ph), steps to the side of the game room to talk about his fears of radiation. He says he doesn't particularly trust what Tokyo Electric is telling them about the threat of radiation exposure.

Mr. YUSKE KAMEDA: (Through translation) So I usually do long sleeves, long pants. When I go home, I wear a hood and, of course, a mask.

BURNETT: In the pachinko parlor, we meet a friendly man who gives his name as Take(ph). He says he got so bored staying inside his house in Minamisoma by order of the authorities that he drove to Soma for some entertainment.

Mr. TAKE: In Minamisoma, something is all closing right there. That's why I come here. I play pachinko, and then I spend money and then spend (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

BURNETT: The tsunami destroyed 15 percent of Soma City, which is light for the northeast coast. Nearly 600 people are dead or missing here. Search crews continue looking for bodies.

But in the past couple of weeks, Soma has come back to life: There are no more gas lines, shops and restaurants have reopened, schools will kick off after spring break, two weeks late.

The displays inside a brightly lit, American-style supermarket are piled with bananas from the Philippines, mackerel from the Pacific and the long, skinny gobo root. Manager Kazunori Sato(ph) says the only products he's having a hard time getting are yoghurt and natto, a traditional Japanese food of fermented soybeans. They've been able to re-source all the foods that are banned from the nuclear contamination area, such as seafood, leafy vegetables and milk.

Mr. KAZUNORI SATO: (Foreign language spoken)

BURNETT: What's more, the manager considers the fact that his store has plenty of groceries creates a sense of stability and normalcy in the community.

In front of the store, Mayumi Sato sits on a bench chatting on her cell phone. She says her family fled Soma a few days after the tsunami, when they heard about the explosions at the nuclear plant down the road. When they saw Soma was outside the danger zone, they decided to return last Sunday.

Ms. MAYUMI SATO: (Through translation) I'm not as worried as I was, but I'm still concerned. I have a 1-year-old and a child in elementary school. I won't let them go outside to play. And I buy mineral water instead of drinking tap water.

BURNETT: She adds: If there's another big explosion at Fukushima, we're getting the hell out of here.

John Burnett, NPR News, Sendai, Japan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.