Kyoko Kurita, Co-Principal Investigator of EnviroLab Asia and Professor of Japanese in the Department of Asian Languages and Literatures at Pomona College, integrated examining environmental issues in two of her courses last fall: “Advanced Japanese” and “Time & Space in Modern Japan.” Here she discusses the issues raised in the documentary, Nuclear Nation, which she screened on September 18, 2015 at the Rose Hills Theatre at Pomona College. She organized the event to introduce her students and the Claremont Colleges community to the impact of the nuclear disaster in Japan. Film director Atsushi Funahashi participated in a Q&A via Skype after the screening.
The effects of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki still cast dark clouds over the aging survivors and their descendants today, 70 years after the bombings. The continuing effort to control the effects of the nuclear disasters at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl are not much talked about, and the much more recent disaster in Fukushima is already treated as if it is something in the past. Atsushi Funahashi is an award-winning documentarian who believes in the importance of sustained attention to the ongoing effect of nuclear disasters. Through Funahashi’s documentary Nuclear Nation, he appeals to the public to think about why and how the Fukushima disaster happened, and to realize that it can happen anywhere in the world if we don’t learn from the previous accidents.
The film documents the current lives of the residents of the town of Futaba, where the nuclear plants are still leaking radiation to the surrounding environment. The residents evacuated to a town some 250 kilometers away, where they live on what used to be the campus of a high school. This high school was closed down due to the lack of high-school-age students in the area. And now most of the evacuees who live there are old people who did not move to a larger town to look for jobs. They create their own spaces in the buildings just large enough for them to lie down surrounded by the crates and boxes of their belongings. They eat delivered packaged meals with very little variation of menu from day to day. They cannot go home, nor can they find a new home or a new job. Their living environment reminds them of their loss and sorrow every minute of every day. Even so, they find a way to control their situation in small ways—by cooking their favorite treats together, drinking sake, or playing chess. Those are the moments they look really alive. Just for a short while.
The mayor of Fukushima reveals in an interview the circumstances in which Futaba became the site for a large-scale nuclear power plant. A seaside town with very little sources of income other than from agricultural produce and fishing, the only way for Futaba to obtain a large fund to urbanize and modernize was to accept an offer from TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company). As a result, the town started to look like a picture-perfect model town one sees on some colorful website. But after the town spent the money to modernize the city, they didn’t have any more income to sustain this beautiful town. This led to accepting TEPCO’s plan to build another plant on the same site.
The documentary ends with a dairy farmer who still raises cows in his dairy farm. He did not evacuate because it was clear that without him those cows would die a most pitiful death of slow starvation. He knows that he cannot sell the cows’ milk or meat to any market. And yet he is caring for the animals, just as he used to. He is aware that he and his cows have been exposed to radiation ever since the accident, and will die from radiation sickness sooner or later. Then why does he work so hard? Some may wonder. But students were generally impressed by his determination to continue caring for the helpless animals, and to continue doing what he has always been doing. Nothing is for eternity. What does one do when our life conditions change drastically? Do we sit and blame someone else? Curse our fate? Or …?
A good crowd showed up to watch the film, although the topic is hardly a “fun” weekend activity. The audience included students and a number of faculty members, including Prof. Carol Ockman from Williams College and Prof. Dan O’Neill from UC Berkeley.
After the documentary ended, Mr. Funahashi engaged in a Q&A session via Skype. Many students asked insightful, probing questions, and Mr. Funahashi answered each one carefully, often explaining the surrounding issues. Read more about the event here.