Decontaminating Minamisoma: A community co-cleaning itself

November 19, 2012

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image RemovedI spent yesterday in the new FutureCenter in Minamisoma, a community 25km south of the reactors in Fukushima that had a population of 70,000 before 3.11. The FutureCenter is in a former small corner convenience store, started earlier this year by Toda-san who knew the community needed some place to talk about the future. In early December we’ll do a workshop bringing together 20 community leaders to share vision for what the FutureCenter needs to focus on in 2013.

One of the people in our meeting was Hakozaki-san, he wanted to tell me more about why he thinks a FutureCenter is essential. Hakozaki-san comes from Itakemura, a village near Minamisoma that used to have a population of 6,000 and was known throughout Japan for its clean air, clean water and fertile soil. Hakozaki-san’s family has worked the forest for many generations and also had a lumber mill. Today Itakemura is deserted. All residents required to leave because of the radiation. A ghost town. Hakozaki-san’s forest is toxic and can no longer be harvested, even if he had a lumber mill he could use. He does not.

Immediately after the shock and emergency of 3.11 passed, Hakozaki-san began to think about what to do. I want to share a bit of his story.

He knew nothing about radiation. Yes, there was a nuclear reactor nearby, but it was safe. No worries. After 3.11 he moved to Minamisoma while 50,000 were being evacuated. His clarity was that THIS IS HOME. It is risky to live here, but it is home and we must deal with radiation. We don’t know the truth of the accident. Don’t know when things can start again. Don’t know what is true. Don’t know if we really have human rights.

Finally many people are coming back here, not just because this is the only place for them to live, but because want to live here. They have come back for many reasons — but mostly because this is home. and we need to start figuring out how to live at home in as safe a way as possible. Time to learn about decontamination — removing accumulated radiation from ground and walls and roofs and leaves.

Hakozaki-san started talking with others in Minamisoma. In the beginning, they didn’t know how to talk to each other about something they knew nothing about. But they had to learn to do both. Government’s hands were full — but they needed to start working NOW.

From the very beginning, they knew that they were doing work not only for their children, they were doing work for the world. First experience for a town to reconstruct after radiation. We have to start here. No place elsewhere in the world has been done. This will happen again, somewhere, they knew. From the very beginning they have kept meticulous records of their work — what they did, how they did it, and what the radiation was before, immediately after, and in the coming weeks and months. They knew this information would be important to others.

The reality is that children and pregnant women are forced to live under high levels of radiation. We have to provide a model of the decontamination 

So Hakozaki-san founded the Institute for Decontamination five months after 3.11. It was founded to treat fields, houses, nature to remove decontamination, to measure the impact of the decontamination and to document. They started with decontaminating a school. First, the collected data on radiation from 500 places at the school. Next they washed the roof and walls and removed the surface soil. They then measured all 500 places again.

In August, 2011, radiation levels were reduced by the cleaning, but were back up to the starting levels within weeks. They returned and cleaned again. By early 2012, the increase in contamination levels several weeks after the cleaning was much, much smaller than in August. Originally the radiation in the air was moving every quickly, and that was why the re-contamination was high. Now radiation is staying in fixed locations. There doesn’t seem to be more radiation coming from reactors.

We need effective plan to remove contamination. Need to do it safely. Need to measure it afterwards. Then design the plan again for the next site based on experience. And make report to share conclusion with others. Research very important in all areas. Worker safety, effectiveness of contamination, planning, evaluation.

Most of the decontamination work of the current work has been done by volunteers. Many experts come to help, and each have different ideas they try to give us. We have to organize the experts rather than having them direct us.

Hakosaki-san went on to say:

Ideally the government of Japan has enough budget for decontamination. Best to give the money to Minamisoma and companies, but government pays only after the work is done, and local companies don’t have the financial capacity — so work goes to Tokyo companies. Money gets taken out at the top and knowledge stays in Tokyo. Neither money nor knowledge finds its way to the local level. This is a really embarrassing system of public works in Japan.


Beyond the contamination, the disaster makes us think about our lives in new ways. Living standard brought down by 3.11, it would take more than 30 years to recover our old living standard. Instead of trying to recover the old, we must find new ways, new society: we have to shift the way we measure happiness. We had many problems before; we don’t want to go back to that past. Even here, in the past, the gap between rich and poor was increasing. Is that what we want?

We need dialog about what kind of society we are going to create and how. How are our children going to become adults in this situation, we must think of new good jobs for young people. This is the way we rebuild community. 

Our work is to overcome the disaster and realize a new way to be happy. Emergency phase is over, now we need to bring people together to build a new, good society. We have to become a dreaming town so our children can have hope for the future. It will take at least 30 years.

It is difficult to change our way of valuing happiness will take a long time. Some people will leave, others will be attracted here. We will make our future together.

For me, Hakosaki-san is another ordinary hero. Or, he’s what we are starting to call an “Innovation Facilitator.” He does not have a position of power. He does not have a budget. He does not have a staff. AND, he’s sure not applying to anyone. He’s talking with his neighbors and figuring out how to use their own resources to do the work needed now. And he’ll keep listening and talking with his neighbors to make a new, good society.

Before 3.11 I rarely heard people in Japan talking about happiness. I did not hear people asking questions about what is good society. But that is what is in the air now. FutureCenters are one way of creating a safe space for those conversations about the future. So good to be helping here with this work.

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