Peter Wastholm

I am a system architect, computational linguist, and entrepreneur in Stockholm, Sweden. I mostly write about technology, language, and all things Japan. There's more at Wastholm.com.
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Photos from Our Family’s Temporary House in Iwaki, Fukushima

Our family in Japan have been at the Nekoma hotel in Aizuwakamatsu since early April. Over time, more and more evacuated families have left, some to newly constructed temporary housing, some to other hotels. Today, it was time for mamasan and Kenji-san to pack up all their belongings and switch hotels. (And clean their room; evacuees are of course not being given full service at the hotels.)

If I understand correctly, their new hotel is called Chiyotaki and is one of a group of hotels in (or closer to) the town of Aizuwakamatsu (which is normally a tourist destination, which is why it has so many hotels). Their new room is considerably smaller than their earlier one but mamasan sounds mostly positive. Still no word, though, on when they will be able to move to temporary housing, and neither mamasan nor Kenji-san knows when or if they will have jobs to return to (but they do know that Kenji-san’s unemployment benefits end in August). If they will ever be able to move back to their house, my guess is that it will be at least a couple of years before that can happen.

Here are a few photos from inside the new hotel:

Yesterday, mamasan and Kenji-san boarded a bus that took them for a brief visit to their house. For mamasan, this was the first time she saw the house since March 11, the day of the earthquake. Kenji-san had been allowed to go back and pick up their car a few days ago. From the outside, the little garden and the house look pretty normal:

Inside was a different story. The quake itself had of course toppled things over and also collapsed an interior wall. Over the past four and a half months, various animals had gotten into the house, rummaging around for anything edible, breaking things, leaving droppings everywhere. Some animals had died inside the house, spreading a foul smell. Mamasan said it was so bad, she couldn’t bring herself to take any pictures. They were now able to close all doors and windows; some had been left open all this time because they left in such a hurry.

Every evacuee — or every family, I’m not sure — is allowed to bring a 70-by-70-cm plastic bag’s worth of personal belongings from his/her house. Mamasan mentioned picking up a couple of photos of her daughters.

As seen on Kenji-san in the photo above, they were required to wear some protective gear, but unlike some who had been allowed to return to their houses earlier, they did not have to wear full hazmat suits the whole time. Upon returning from the forbidden zone, everything brought back was inspected for radioactive contamination.

Like I said, Kenji-san was allowed to go back and pick up their car a few days ago. This surprised me since I had imagined that a car would have too many air filters, porous materials, nooks and crannies and various places where radioactive dust might collect. It had to be thoroughly washed twice and was then deemed fit for use.

I can’t imagine what it must be like to go back to one’s house, seeing it half-destroyed and full of stinking carcasses; to only be allowed to pick up a few belongings, leaving all the other bits and pieces of one’s life behind; to then have to leave it again, not knowing when or if one will be able to return. For the first time since the earthquake, that I’ve heard of, mamasan said:

"At least we’re alive."

We got these pictures from mamasan today. Their temporary house is what the Japanese call a “2DK,” meaning “two rooms and a dining room kitchen.” No word yet on when they will be moving in — or, of course, how long they should expect to stay there.

Kyodo News tweeted this morning that the number of foreign visitors to Japan dropped 62.5% in April. This, if true, is a shame, because the ailing Japanese economy (which was already in terrible shape before the earthquake) really could do with the money those visitors would have spent. A lot of them probably stayed away out of a fear of radiation. That’s worse, because then they stayed away unnecessarily.

Most foreign visitors go to Tokyo or Kyoto. Both these places are well out of the way of the radiation from the Fukushima power plant.

But haven’t elevated levels of radiation been detected in Tokyo? — Yes, but the levels are still much much lower than, for example, what you would be exposed to on a perfectly typical flight on a perfectly normal passenger plane. See, for example, this graph showing the levels of radiation detected throughout a business trip to Japan. The radiation in Tokyo is barely noticeable next to the huge spikes during the times the traveler was sitting on a plane. And those spikes would of course have looked the same if he had flown somewhere else instead.

If you don’t feel comfortable going to Japan right now after all that has happened there recently, sure, don’t go. (But do go later — Japan is an absolutely fascinating country.) Just don’t stay away because you’re afraid of being exposed to radiation. Living on Earth, we’re exposed to radiation all the time, from both natural and artificial sources, and a visit to, say, Tokyo would barely register next to everything else that you are already exposed to and that is very unlikely to have any impact on your health. For a bit of perspective, here’s a nice visualization of radiation from various sources.

Our family members have now been allowed to leave the sports stadium in Tamura and check in to a hotel in Aizuwakamatsu. Mamasan sent us a couple of pictures:

Looks nice, but it would of course have been nicer to know how long they are going to stay there, and if and when they will be able to return to their house, and if and when they will be able to find jobs to support themselves. I happened to read an article in the Washington Post this morning about a man, also currently in a shelter in Tamura, who was allowed to make a brief visit to his house very near our family’s house. He brought back soil samples which were determined to be contaminated by radiation, although the article (of course) failed to mention any specifics.

Mamasan went to the coin laundry yesterday and got in a conversation with one of the other patrons, who was a local. Upon learning that mamasan and her family were evacuees, this person went home and soon returned with some home cooking: nice hot miso soup. This was their second hot meal since last Friday.

NHK is reporting right now that there are 285,000 people in over 2,200 shelters throughout the affected areas. Many shelters are short on food, medicine, and other essentials, so mamasan & co. can still be said to be relatively lucky.

Kenji-san (mama-san’s husband) and his mother, whom everyone calls obâchan (“Grandma”).

Mama-san and obâchan.

As I understand it, this is what the Fukushima Tamura Stadium looks like from the outside.

Their sleeping quarters. They have recently been allocated a slightly larger space. People sometimes move from one shelter to another to be with their friends or relatives. They now have one tatami per person (a tatami is a traditional Japanese straw mat, as well as a unit of measurement equivalent to about two square meters).

My wife’s mom, her husband, and his mother are in Tamura, about 40 km from the disaster-struck Fukushima Daiichi power plant, the yellow pin on the map. The yellow circle shows the 20-km evacuation zone; the larger circle indicates the 30-km zone in which people are advised to stay indoors and keep windows closed. Their house is about half way between the Daiichi and Daini power plants. (The latter, indicated by the pink pin, also had problems earlier but the situation there now seems to be under control.) The house is near the town of Tomioka, whose train station, which has often served as our starting point for trips around Japan, has been completely washed away by the tsunami.

Photos from Evacuation Shelter in Fukushima, Japan (Corrected)