Posted in Japan News

Fukushima Exclusion Zone Photographer Under Fire

A group of semi-viral images has gained some negative attention in Japan. Photographer Keow Wee Loong claimed to illegally cross in the Red Zone of Fukushima, an evacuated area where radiation is still considered to be too high for human exposure.

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Photo Credit: Keow Wee Loong

In the text following this photo he explains: “before i went there the authority told me that i need a special permit to visit this town and it take 3-4 weeks to get the approval from the local council,, well too much bureaucracy bullshit for me..so i just sneak in the forest to avoid cops on the road …AND IT WAS AMAZING !!!!!”

The “bureaucrazy bullshit” that he failed to do could land him in jail. Not only that, but the security around the area is tight. It is almost unbelievable that he managed to find a way through and inside that didn’t garner the attention of the guards stationed around the perimeter.

And yet, he apparently did: “There were too many cops on the main road, so we started our journey from Tomioka, then we went off the main road. We used Google Maps to navigate from one town to another.”

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Photo Credit: Keow Wee Loong

 

As you can see in the above photo, the man who was apparently going through laundry left in the machines from March 11th 2011 and onward decided to where a gas mack as protection. As neary anyone with a bit of science under their belt will tell you, radiation can go through gas masks, clothing, and…sandals. Loong claimes he lost his bank cards and money, and so he couldn’t afford to buy any of the proper equipment. It’s also one of the reasons he couldn’t wait the 3-4 weeks for the local council, because he didn’t have enough money to survive that long.

All the same, people are enraged at this complete lack of self-care, with commentors pointing out that by doing what he did he put not only himself at risk but also other people he came into contact with.  As reported by Zafigo: “There is also concerns the photos are encouraging others to engage in the risky behaviour as people are seen tagging their friends in the photos and commenting that they too want to visit Fukushima. Some have gone to the extent of reporting his photo album to the authorities and Facebook. At publishing time, Keow is barred on Facebook for ‘inflicting violence’.”

Many citizens of Fukushima are furious: “For them, breaking into the site was a very insensitive and rude action. Explaining that the photos are a misrepresentation of the Fukushima community, they questioned how he could blatantly disrespect the Fukushima community and the lives and livelihoods that were lost. One angry commenter described his act as an ‘exploitation’ of the Fukushima prefecture and its people for his own agenda.”

His own agenda being that of anti-nuclear technology. Loong makes comments like there was “a chemical smell in the air” and that “the fukushima daichi power plant exploded that lead to harmful radiation leaked.” In actuality, the plant went into meltdown with a few chemical explosions within its walls (which is why the walls were built so thick as to handle that kind of pressure), but those chemicals are still contained within those walls. The radiation leaked, but humans can neither smell nor taste the radiation.

As a former JET, I’m a part of the Alumni group. Today someone posted this in reaction to this news:

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JET Alumni Facebook

What Loong probably doesn’t realize is that Fukushima is a prefecture that is still suffering. He might as well have stepped on graves and took pictures of tombstones, that is the kind of violation those citizens feel. And yes, “sensationalist” is a pretty apt word for his both his story and the reaction from the media. People are dying to interview him, they want to get all the juicy details, meanwhile the residents whose homes he just tresspassed all over are being pushed aside for a sweet headline.

Also, the citizens of Fukushima are still economically stigmatized due to misunderstandings about radiation. People are still, after five years, scared to purchase any kind of produce, milk, or other products with the sticker “Made in Fukushima.” With these photos to remind people once again about the incident, with “proof” of the rediation still going on, there will be negative consequences.

Essentially, there are right ways and wrong ways to go about documenting a place of national tragedy, and Loong went with the very wrong path. By taking pictures without permission, stepping onto property and therefore tresspassing, he is telling the victims of the Daiichi Disaster that his cause matters more than their grief and their pain.

The “beauracracy bullshit” is there to protect the Red Zone, because it’s not an abandoned town to some people, it’s still home.


If you’re looking for a real photographer who did his homework and treated the people of Fukushima with the respect they deserved, I recommend Arkadiusz Podniesinski. His photos are not only haunting, but he makes a very detailed account with people who lived in the area telling their story to him. He treats the subject with care, as I wish all photographers would.

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Years Later: Reflections on March 11th

Today, Japan and its citizens stopped at 2:46 p.m. for a moment of silence. It was the same time when the great Tohoku Earthquake struck five years ago. The earthquake caused a tsunami, which in turn made the Fukushima Dainichi Reactor go into meltdown. Thousands of people were evacuated from their homes, over 18,000 lives were lost, and the damage dealt then still hasn’t been fully repaired.

 

I came to Japan in July of that same year. When I arrived in Itako, so many of the roads were cracked, shifted sideways, or in waves. The school across the street from me had a long crack up the side still being repaired. Most of the buildings in the area dropped an inch into the ground after the earthquake hit; due to the rice farming, the entire region was so soft underneath the ground just gave way.

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A sidewalk pushed up by the earthquake. The road used to be a straight line, not a curve. Notice the poles about to fall over. 

For a month or so, if I wanted clean water to drink and cook with, I’d have to bike all the way out to the supermarket to get water. I’d fill it up and lug it home with the groceries in a backpack killing my shoulders. The whole time I was doing it, I knew I was lucky because so many others were facing he grief of losing family, friends, and homes. I just had to do some exercise. Nothing I experienced could even come close to that kind of awful.

I was amazed at how resilient my Japanese co-workers and students were about everything. Even though their country just went through something terribly traumatic, they were still able to work forward towards getting back to normal. My teachers often praised me for coming to Japan after the earthquake, calling me brave, but I feel like my boarding a plane and their surviving a natural disaster weren’t comparable.

My students just rolled with the aftershocks, of which there were many in the year to follow, even if they sometimes needed to hold my hand when a big one struck during class. They’d still move on, go to the next class, keep trucking through. I really admired all of them for being so strong, even if they didn’t think of it.

Over the three years I lived there, I watched as everything slowly transformed. The roads around my apartment were done one at a time, painstakingly thorough in trying to make them straight again. You’d never know that the buildings are two inches shorter with all the stairs and foundations redone. When the construction finally died down, everyone relaxed and got into a groove of normalcy again. The cracks in the buildings and the psyches became faded lines that you had to look for, and if you weren’t looking you wouldn’t even see them at all.

Fukushima hasn’t been so lucky. Many people there are upset that the government isn’t doing enough in Fukushima. Many residents cite radiations concerns as their number one issue, since they fear with the decontamination not yet complete they and their families are in danger. Also, a complaint that pops up every other month is that the evacuees are still not given their stipends by the government for being forced to evacuate. Safety and money are in small supply for them.

I did some small volunteer efforts around Ibaraki, mostly just helping cleaning and such. I always meant to go up to Fukushima to volunteer, but I was told that most of the volunteer tourism was becoming a hindrance for people living there. Instead, I donated clothes and food, sometimes books if I could afford the postage. At Christmas time, I would send presents to children affected by the earthquake. Little things, here and there, and I still do them when the opportunity arises. It’s easy to think that enough time has passed and since the issue is no longer covered in the national news that the problem must be solved, but that simply is not the case.

Even though it’s been five years, the recovery and rebuilding efforts continue in all the affected areas. Every day people are continuing to help out those who lost so much. If you wish to donate, please consider giving to the JET’s Rally Cry for Tohoku. One JET teacher, Taylor Anderson, died in the disaster and her family set up an education charity in the hopes of aiding all the people who have lost so much. Just $25 can help provide living expenses for students through the YMCA. Honestly, there is still so much to do but with donations, money, and supplies given to the displaced residents, perhaps they can start to live securely again.


Cover photo credit: Japan Today| Reuters photos