My feedback on Uncanny Terrain Preview, or How I, and the Society, Should Act for Agriculture in Fukushima

On Feburuary 5th, 2012, a preview showing and fundraiser of "Uncanny Terrain" was held in Chicago. "Uncanny Terrain" is an on-going documentary project by Ed Koziarski and Junko Kajino about organic famers in Fukushima after the tragic accident of Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant caused by the Great East Japan Earthquake. The venue of the event was indeed in the middle of dark storehouse streets, which we found out was the back of City Fleet Management Department, and my friends and I were all glad to have each other to walk from a parking spot to the venue door. That was the very reason why we got so surprised to see the room full of people. (Moreover, to think that it was the night of Super Bowl!)

The event opened with brief introduction by Ed and Junko, and soon was followed by the screeninng of video. As they explained, it was not like a trailer or a digest version, but rather was a bunch of clips put together into 30 minutes video. Ed and Junko actually wanted to go to Fukushima again this year to shoot more, thus, the video was like a progress report, and shouldn't have been taken as something completed. Still, though, I had some comments and questions after watching it, (it was a shame that there was not Q&A or discussion afterwards), so I asked Ed and Junko if they were up for chatting later. They kindly invited me to listen to my feedback and to discuss each other's thoughts.

The Video featured various farmers in Fukushima. Just watching their faces, and listening to their stories was already so impressive. It reminded me again with visuals what had happened there, what was going on there. Even those clips showing just landscapes of Fukushima were stirring, by making me realize the harshest irony that they were "contaminated", yet to the eyes, they were still magnificently beautiful.

Ed and Junko were indeed great listeners. They listened to every farmer's story with such compassion, and I could see how much they were trusted and loved by every farmer in Fukushima. Yet, at the same time, to be honest I started feeling that I wanted more. Their interview style was like let-them-speak style, rather than elicit-their-inner-thought style. There is no doubt about the indispensability to document what Fukushima farmers wanted to say, what they wanted to be heard, but as one of my friends said afterwards, I thought what if Ed and Junko had asked them tough questions to push their boundary a little more. Questions that they needed to consider to answer.

I came to feel this way because a set of each farmer's "willing-to-tell" stories already implied some conflicting positions among them and much more complicated situation in Fukushima agriculture than the uplifting tone throughout the 30minutes video. In the end, a juxtaposition of those contradicting idea leave the audience like me to say nothing but "I am sorry for them". Probably what I wanted was the position of Ed and Junko themselves, who witnessed all those contradictions on site.

For example, of many farmers they featured, there were two farmers who especially got stuck in my mind. One was a dairy farmer whose farm located in the evacuated zone. He drove to Tokyo all the way many times to make street speech, and to protest against TEPCO at its headquarters. Between those activism, he told Ed and Junko that it was an empty promise that they could go back home and keep farming someday. He said that even though it was very harsh, they needed to face with the reality and demand those who were responsible to pay for what they had done. On the other hand, there was another farmer whose farm located outside of evacuate zone, yet was still as close to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant as 30 miles. He said that if he had had small children, he might have let them evacuate with their mother. But, he continued that he would stay there to regenerate the contaminated soil, and that he believed it was his responsibility for next generations. He said he would devote himself to restore Fukushima.

"To keep farming is an empty promise" or "to stay to restore our land". I sincerely feel for both farmers, though, I am personally more inclined to the former farmer's perspective. From what I have learned with information and stories so far, I cannot be optimistic about miraculous technology that would decontaminate land, water and air, especially given the fact that the very source of contamination, Fukushima Daiichi Plant itself is still leaking radioactive substances now at this moment. To me, the encouragement for farmers and residents in Fukushima to hang in there sounds nothing but another form of "safety myth".

Moreover, my primary concern is the health risk of those who devote themselves in decontamination project. The government set the soil contamination standard for farming restriction as less than 5000bq/kg. Thus many farmers in Fukushima, like the latter farmer, were concerned whether his land's contamination level is less than the standard. If it didn't exceed the standard, they got relieved because they were allowed to keep cultivating. Being allowed or not is, however, just a bureaucracy business which does not care anything about the health risk of farmers. All those efforts to decontaminate the land, including removal of surface soil, planting of canola, soil agitation, etc, cannot be done without risking the health of people who conduct them, for it is inevitable for them to inhale dust and directly contacting the soil. And in many cases, actually most of those "less-contaminated" farmland cases, farmers are devoting themselves in these tasks.  

So I asked Ed and Junko what they thought about conflicting positions among farmers and told my concerns about farmers' health risk. And again, they were great listeners. They also shared with me a lot of stories that were not included in 30 minutes video and we had a very meaningful discussion. For example, there was a farmer whom they had been shooting, too, but at the time of harvest, he found that the contamination level of his rice exceeded the legal standards. And he did not allow them to use his clips any longer. Another farmer evacuated from Fukushima, but eventually came back because he could not fit in a new place without human and social capital that used to be so rich in his homeland. Listening to those stories I learned about even more complicated and serious situation in Fukushima agriculture. Ed and Junko admitted that for the sake of fundraiser, they tried to make an uplifting message, but they also expected that the completed version would reveal more heavy and dark side as well.

Ed and Junko also told me very honestly that it was difficult for them to ask tough questions especially when farmers shared their hopes. Even the aforementioned farmer who said it would be an empty promise in the 30 minutes video once told them that he was thinking about how he could "decontaminate" cows that had been heavily exposed in the restricted zone. Junko said she had been very surprised when she had heard that, but confessed that she could not dare to challenge him by asking "are you serious?" Ed and Junko also told me that how eager farmers were to keep farming, so it would be hard for them to give up unless they were forced so by the order. Even if they knew the health risk to cultivate there, they did not care, or tried not to care, probably.

Those stories that were not appeared in the video were indeed powerful and made me think even more. And knowing my being intrusive, I could not help but beg them to take on a challenge at their next filming. To witness such inner struggles and complexity of each farmer would be even more evocative for the audience including me, and make us consider what we can, and should do, beyond showing just a sympathy.

I thought it was of course for farmers that they could not make a decision to give up unless they were forced to. Who can give up your land, your life, and your memory by your own will? Thus I can by no means accuse them for trying, or pretending, or maybe indeed being, ignorant about their health risk to stay in and cultivate their land. Actually I think nobody is entitled to do. But at the same time, I cannot feel that it is ethical for me to just cheer up those remaining farmers with knowing their risk. Because I do know the risk. And for me, it is not forgivable to try or pretend to be ignorant about it. In the end, this is the question about how I, who is not a farmer or a resident in Fukushima myself, and the society can and should act for them.

On February 13th, scientists of the University of Tokyo proposed to the government to make contaminated rice paddy fields into "research paddy fields". Instead of banning their cultivation, they claimed, this way, farmers could keep farming there without distributing presumably contaminated rice harvested at there. While I also see the importance to get data regarding soil contamination and its transfer to harvested crops, if the government is really going to do this, I strongly maintain that the farmers who will cultivate those "research paddy fields" should be listed as legally defined Radiation Workers and receive exposure monitoring and health service required by the law (although we are learning that this legal requirement is far less sufficient, but, at least). It would be likely that farmers "allowed" to cultivate there would be just happy. Of course they would be. But I believe that the society, our legal society for God's sake, should not take their "voluntary" acceptance of risks as it is without any supports. Radiation Workers in nuclear plants voluntarily (again, we are learning that there are too many direct and indirect structural forces to have them make that "voluntary" decision) take risks and work there. But we do not tell them that it was their choice. The law requires to provide supports for them (but again, we are learning that the legal requirement has never been adequate, and moreover, this law was so easily amended to have workers in Fukushima Daiichi Plant accept more exposure). It should be clear from my repeated bracketing, which I hate to do, that listing them as legal Radiation Workers is literally minimum, but definitely necessary measures to be taken. If, by any chance, those scientists and the government do not take this into serious consideration in planning this project, I would say that it is not different from a human experiment (what data do they really want?), by taking advantage of farmers' voluntariness.

My point might make more sense in this "research fields" case for some people, because it is about "officially contaminated" fields that have been "legally banned" to be cultivated. But I maintain that being official or not, legal or not, does not matter. Given that the soil is actually contaminated, and the farmers is a high risk group of internal exposure for their direct and continuous contact with soil, whether its level is less than the bureaucratically defined standard means very little. It is about how I, who is not experiencing immediate difficulties, and we as a society should act for farmers in Fukushima. We can never fully compensate their dignity in this irreparable situation. But, for this very reason, I and the society have to seriously consider what we should do for them. Cosidering what farmers are undergoing, money and social support is minimum, but definitely necessary.

I think not many people have been interacting with farmers in Fukushima after the tragedy such intensively as Ed and Junko have. Thus I was very glad that they, who knew the situation much more deeply, took my point well. They were planning to go back to Fukushima again this year to continue filming in which they said they would like to reflect our exchange. After our serious and pleasant discussion, I am looking forward to the completion of "Uncanny Terrain" more than before, with hoping that it will provide lots of insights for me to think and act.