‘Alone Again in Fukushima’

On the 10th anniversary of the triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear facility destruction, a film and discussion hosted by the Center for East Asian Studies looked at the calamity’s reverberations.

Man looks at pony and cow eating hay with trees and hills in the background
Still from the documentary “Alone Again in Fukushima” shows the main character Naoto Matsumura looking at the abandoned cattle and pony he cares for after the disaster. (Image: Courtesy of Mayu Nakamura)

On March 11, 2019, a deadly earthquake and subsequent tsunami struck northeastern Japan causing the meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear facility, killing thousands, displacing hundreds of thousands, and unleashing widespread contamination.

To commemorate the 10th anniversary of the disaster, Penn’s Center for East Asian Studies (CEAS) and the Japanese Language Program held two connected events: a screening of Mayu Nakamura’s new documentary “Alone Again in Fukushima” and a virtual panel discussion about the film featuring Linda Chance, associate professor of Japanese language and literature in the School of Arts & Sciences; Caitlin Adkins, a doctoral student with focuses on gender, work, and precarity; and Eric Feldman, a Penn Law professor with expertise in Japanese law and nuclear disasters.

The quake and monster waves ultimately killed more than 15,000 people, destroyed more than a million buildings, and left 4.4 million Japanese households without electricity and 1.5 million without water.

People in hazmat suits walk around the Fukushima nuclear plant in 2013
Experts with the International Atomic Energy Agency depart Unit 4 of TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station on April 17, 2013 as part of a mission to review Japan’s plans to decommission the facility. (Image: Greg Webb/IAEA)

But those were only the immediate consequences of what the Japanese refer to as the Great East Japan Earthquake, said CEAS director Fred Dickinson in introducing the panel speakers.

“Like the other monumental disasters of post-1945 Japan—the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—the long-term effects of this calamity linger,” he said.

The disaster seems to have been forgotten in the United States and elsewhere outside of Japan, Dickinson said.

“Interestingly, a key point of director Nakamura’s film is that in many ways, Fukushima has been forgotten in Japan as well, and certainly the lingering, everyday sort of sacrifices and challenges have been forgotten by all who are not actually having to live those sacrifices,” he said.

The main goal of the panel, Dickinson said, was to remember.

The film is a follow-up to Nakamura’s 2015 documentary “Alone in Fukushima” and follows Naoto Matsumura, a man who chose to remain in the nuclear zone to care for abandoned animals after everyone else was evacuated. The first film documented his work feeding cattle, dogs, cats, and even ostriches (which the nuclear plant used as sort of live mascots before the disaster). The latest film catches up with Naoto and logs how things have and have not changed in the contamination zone.

In a pre-taped address to the panel, Nakamura said, “What I want people to remember is that although a lot of the things are reconstructed, Fukushima isn’t over. The nuclear reactor is still having problems, and what I worry is that people would forget about Fukushima after this 10th anniversary.” She said she plans to continue work on the film and hopefully release it in theaters soon.

Chance told the audience she teaches an Introduction to Japanese civilization course every few years, and it seems that every time she teaches it there is a tragedy or disaster in Japan.

“I was teaching it in 1995, when the Kobe earthquake struck; I was teaching in 2011, and again in 2020, when the pandemic hit. This is a pretty bad track record that caused me to think a little bit about the pedagogies of disaster,” she said. “When something of this magnitude happens, of course, we have to address it in the classroom; it’s already there, and it becomes a question of ‘how can we talk about some of these deep traumas that Japan has been suffering over history?’”

When the disaster struck in 2011, Chance retooled her planned lecture on early modern Japan in order to address the history of earthquakes and some of the folk explanations for earthquakes. She displayed a woodblock print that depicted a legend about how earthquakes began, “which is when the giant carp that is underneath the stone that’s holding things together wakes up and moves around,” she said.

An 1855 painting of Japanese folklore tale about a large fish causing an earthquake is shown on the left, and on the right a woman in a Zoom call panel is speaking.
Professor Linda Chance describes folk legends of the origins of earthquakes during the virtual event.

She also shared with the virtual audience examples of literature and film that could add a fuller view of the Fukushima calamity, including the essay “Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure: A Tale That Begins in Fukushima” by Hideo Furukawa, and the novella “Sacred Cesium Ground” by Yusuke Kimura. The latter book in particular has a curious similarity to the film “Alone Again in Fukushima” as it also tells the story of people who care for the irradiated cattle that were left behind in the exclusion zones, but it does it through the voice of a feminine narrator, she said.

“Over the course of the novella, she learns through feeding the cattle to feed herself on some levels,” said Chance.

Adkins’ research focuses on precarious labor conditions and precarity in contemporary Japan, and she said that was the framework through which she viewed the documentary.

A front page from The Japan Times describes the 2011 Fukushima disaster
Caitlin Adkins described the media’s coverage of the disaster during the post-film discussion.

“It raised questions—particularly focused around radiation—about what can happen, what will happen, what should we do,” she said. “These questions, as the documentary artfully shows, in many ways over these last 10 years have remained unanswered.”

She had a question in the back of her mind as she watched the film and was still grappling with it at the end.

“Is this a tale of recovery? Whose recovery? What’s recovery?” she asked, saying there were points that the documentary provided for viewers that were leading them to a certain type of answer, but she remained unsure.

Feldman specializes in Japanese law, often in the context of such urgent policy issues as natural and nuclear disasters. After a calamity, he focuses on who is entitled to compensation, for what, and how much. In the 2015-16 academic year, he taught a class on law and disasters and accompanied a group of 14 law students to Japan to speak with lawyers, government officials, and others about the disaster.

He recounted a memory of his time in Fukushima that was reflected in the documentary: mile after mile of enormous black plastic bags full of contaminated waste that the government was still trying to figure out what to do with.

Man speaks in a Zoom call with a vertical stack of five Zoom particpants on the right hand side of the image
Eric Feldman shared this thoughts on the documentary with the virtual audience.

“I remember clearly conversations in Tokyo with the gentleman who was charged by the government at figuring out how to decontaminate—this was in 2012—and he said, ‘Well, I have no idea how to decontaminate, but guess what? No one else does either, so we’re going to have to figure it out.’” said Feldman. “It’s important to remember that, fortunately, disasters like this are extraordinarily rare.”

Three Mile Island in the United States was nothing compared to what happened in Fukushima, he said, and Chernobyl was in such a different environment and was a different scale.

“Many of the things that had to be learned in Fukushima needed to be learned because nobody really had experience with them before, so there’s lots new that’s unfolding there,” he said.

Feldman urged the audience to keep in mind that Japanese government compensation was only for victims of the meltdown.

“There was much more devastation caused by the earthquake and the tsunami. That’s what caused the deaths; that’s what caused the destruction of homes and communities,” he said. “There’s no compensation system for those people. I want to make sure that we remember that part of the ongoing story of Fukushima.”

“In keeping Fukushima on the radar screen,” said Dickinson, all who participated in viewing the film and panel discussion helped to do that. “These are global issues and we all really need to think about them.”