Inside the Abandoned Radioactive Towns of Japan


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Inside the Abandoned Radioactive Towns of Japan

Photographer Toshiya Watanabe's family lived in Namie, a town in the fallout zone of the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant meltdown, which is now abandoned two years later. Toshiya has gone back to document the changes, or lack thereof, that he sees in his...
February 27, 2013, 1:00pmUpdated on February 27, 2013, 3:37pm

You might remember that way back in March 2011, a major tsunami struck the northeast shores of Japan, devastating the country and causing the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant's cooling systems to break down, which resulted in the worst nuclear meltdown since Chernobyl. Even if you don't recall that disaster, photographer Toshiya Watanabe does. His family home, Namie, where his mother and cousins still lived, was directly in the path of both the rising waters and the waves of radiation that came after. Nowadays, the town and all the others like it in the disaster zone sit abandoned, unchanged in the past two years, like a ghost town where the ghosts are nuclear-charged stray dogs and cattle. Toshiya has traveled back to his hometown many times, documenting the changes he saw, or lack thereof. We chatted with him about visiting the "no-go zone" that is now his hometown.

VICE: Hey, Toshiya. I know you weren't there, but what did your family tell you about what the day of the tsunami was like?
Toshiya Watanabe: After the earthquake and the tsunami that followed, my family, together with other people in town, spent the night at the local gym. The trouble hadn't started at the nuclear power plant then, so at dawn, everyone started helping those whose houses had been hit by the tsunami. Although the damages from the tsunami were great, no one could imagine the worst that was still to come. On March 12, the day after the tsunami hit, the government announced that residents within six and a half miles of the nuclear power plant needed to evacuate immediately. There was no time to pick up their belongings; people just left in cars and buses. The first explosion at the plant happened at three in the afternoon that day.

What motivated you to go back and photograph your hometown? Were you allowed to be there?
Two months after the meltdown at the nuclear power plant, no one could go within 12 miles of the power plant without permission. When I first got permission to go back on June 12, I thought it could be the last time I'd ever visit there, so I thought I had to record as much as I could of my hometown. Since then, I was given permission to go back in November 2011, as well as April, June, and September of 2012. I went back with my mother to get things she needed, and while tidying up, I made more pictures. I just wanted to document how my hometown was changing, or not changing, nothing more.

What was it like to see the place where you used to live completely empty of humans? It looks like something out of a zombie movie.
When I first went there, time had stopped and everything was just the way it was when the tsunami hit. A town I was so familiar with felt like a science-fiction movie set all of a sudden. I remember feeling dizzy a few times.There were no people there, only the sound of the wind and birds, and when I closed my eyes, it felt like I was standing in the middle of a forest.

You have gone back a few times now. How many more times do you plan on going? Is it dangerous?
I think I will keep going back with my mother every time we get permission. Sure, we worry about the radiation too, but as long as we are only there for the three to five hours we are allowed, I think we will be fine. But then again, we might have gotten used to it now that we've entered an area of high radiation so many times. Radiation is still high in some areas so it's still dangerous.

What do you think about Japan and the world’s reaction to what happened? Do you think they downplayed the effects? Do you or your family have any health problems because of your proximity to the reactor?
As for the accident at the power plant, neither the government nor TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company) have been telling us the truth from the start. The government has again and again said they will do something about the nuclear accident, but most people don't buy it. We can only rely on nuclear specialists in Germany, France, and the United States to tell us the dangers we face. It's the same with health hazards. We have seen how it's affecting children already, and no one knows exactly what's going on. I think we, as citizens of Japan, have been worried ever since the day the tsunami hit. There is no way of telling what is true, and we simply don't know who we can trust anymore.

I am not trying to use my pictures to send the government or anyone a particular message, I just want people to see the town as it is, and for each person to have their own reaction when they see them.

Downtown Namie.

Downtown Namie.

Downtown Namie.

Toshiya's family home, three months after the tsunami and the ensuing evacuation.

The abandoned house of one of Toshiya's family friends.

Stray dogs in downtown Namie.

Downtown Namie.

Downtown Namie.

Toshiya's family home, three months after the tsunami and the ensuing evacuation.

Toshiya's family home, seven months after the tsunami and the ensuing evacuation.

Namie, three and seven months after the evacuation.