A photographer returns to Fukushima

Meet Pete. We used to skate together around Redcliffe in the early and mid-nineties.
We drifted apart in the late nineties but then in 2003 we made contact via one of those “schoolyard-chums” websites only to discover we were both living in Japan. I was teaching English in Tokyo – everyone knew Japan’s capital – and Pete was married and polishing his photography in Fukushima. At that point, very few people outside Japan knew Fukushima. So anyway, we reconnected and have been in touch ever since.

Photographer Pete Leong
Okinawa-based photographer, Pete Leong.

He has since moved to the sub-tropical region of Okinawa and, indeed, he was there in the far south when the notorious 3-11 earthquake and tsunami hit northern Japan.
Just last week I noticed Pete had returned to Fukushima for the first time since the natural disaster and had posted some photographs from the region. I asked him if he was interested in doing a Q&A for my blog. He was.

Pete’s wife Haruna sitting on the recently-laid “tetrapod” seawall at Haramachi.

What is your connection to Fukushima?
My wife Haruna was born and raised in Fukushima. We met in Australia while teaching rock climbing together. We first took a trip to Fukushima for travel and fell in love with the place. I then returned to Fukushima about six months later on a working visa and never looked back. It became home for the next 10 years or so.

How long had it been since you’d last been there?

It had been about three years since I had visited Fukushima. We relocated to Okinawa for work and to live in a warmer place by the sea. We were lucky enough to have moved from Fukushima before all the trouble went down.

Much of the damage to roads is still far from fixed.

What places had changed the most?
At first appearance not all that much had changed. But after spending some time back there I began to notice many places had gone out of business although surprisingly quite a few new places have opened up. I also noticed there was nowhere near the number of kids out playing as there were before and many people have moved away to other areas. I also found several huge pits that have been dug out to dispose of the radioactive dirt that has been removed from around the houses and gardens. There was a lot of reconstruction also going on in my favourite onsen (hot spring) villages up in the mountains as these are very old but popular tourist spots. As soon as I traveled closer towards the nuclear power plant things were very different indeed. Deserted ghost towns everywhere, police road blocks in areas where radiation levels were too high and apocalyptic looking annihilated villages in the direct path of the tsunami.

What was once the shower room at the Haramachi Seaside campground where Pete used to camp.

What shocked you the most?
The day I took a trip out to document how close I could get to the nuclear power plant and tsunami affected areas. I had learned that the government had very recently opened up the public accessible radius from the power plant from 20km to 10km. So my aim was to get in that area and to hopefully get a view from somewhere of the power plant itself. On the way out there I was turned back at police road blocks that went through villages that had ridiculously high levels of radiation. So with our trusty iPhone GPS my wife and I navigated around the heavier-radiated areas to get over to the seaside and first visit Haramachi seaside park. This is where we would often go camping in the summer. It’s a beautiful forested campground by the sea that is also popular with surfers.

A house balancing precariously where the ground has dropped away. The small house was still mostly furnished.

Once we eventually found a route to the area it was amazing to see pretty much the exact line of where the tsunami made it to about 1km inland. The area unaffected by the tsunami was still busy with people going on with their lives like normal but from about 1km to the seaside it was just a wasteland. My wife noticed, however, that the area had been cleaned up a lot since her trip to this area about a year ago. We found some volunteers still there cleaning up trash from the beaches but our little seaside camp area resembled something from a post-apocalyptic movie.
Probably the most shocking thing though, was when we made our way into the newly opened 10km radius of the plant. Inside here pretty much all the small towns by the sea are still left in ruin, houses are pretty much totalled, cars squashed like Coke cans scattered all over the place and totally deserted except for some police patrols cruising around keeping an eye out for scavengers. It was such an eerie and sad feeling walking around these neighbourhoods.

Demolished trucks and cars that were in the path of the tsunami are still scattered all around Fukushima.

What were some of the things that touched you emotionally?
Probably seeing little kids’ toys and tsunami victims’ personal effects still scattered around the place. Houses that are half missing but still full of their owners’ furniture and things. Also, brand new houses that their owners can’t return to. Very sad to see.

Plates and food still sit in the cupboards of this house in on of the new ghost towns.

What special equipment did you take with you?
All we took with us was a Geiger counter which is important to have on you in these areas because if you can’t check the radiation you won’t know if you’re in a high risk area. Most of the time our counter would be registering around 0.19uSv/h but in dangerous areas we saw it spike to over 4 uSv/h. Needless to say we got out of those areas quick smart! Apart from that, we just took our regular camera gear to document the area.

This reading on Pete’s Geiger counter caused brief panic. The couple was en route to the nuclear power plant.

Is there anything else you would like to add?
It was great to get back up to Fukushima again after 3 years away and visit my favourite hot springs, snowboarding and visiting friends/family etc. And it’s good to see life is going on pretty much as normal in most places. It’s not until you take a closer look that you can see the lasting effects from such a devastating incident. It’s going to be a long time before things are back to normal in the tsunami affected areas and they still need all the help they can get from volunteers.

Temporary housing, like these in Pete’s wife’s hometown of Iino, offered a few of the luckier tsunami victims shelter until they can get back on their feet. This is approximately 50km from the worst-affected areas.

Visit Pete’s website or read his blog.