Shinichi Niitsuma is enthusiastic about showing visitors the attractions of the small town of Namie: its tsunami-hit coastline, abandoned houses and hills overlooking the radiation-soaked reactors of the disabled Fukushima nuclear power plant.
Five years after the nuclear disaster emptied this stretch of Honshu’s northeastern coastline, tourism is giving residents of the abandoned town a chance to exorcise the horrors of the past.
Like the Nazi concentration camps in Poland or Ground Zero in New York, the areas devastated by the Fukushima disaster have recently become hot spots for “dark tourism” and drawn more than 2,000 visitors keen to see the aftermath of the worst nuclear accident in a quarter century.
“There is no place like Fukushima — except maybe Chernobyl — to see how terrible a nuclear accident is,” Niitsuma said, referring to the 1986 disaster in Ukraine.
“I want visitors to see this ghost town, which is not just a mere legacy but clear and present despair,” he added as he drove visitors down Namie’s main street just 8 km (5 miles) from the stricken nuclear plant.
On March 11, 2011, a magnitude-9 earthquake off Tohoku’s coast spawned massive tsunami that swept ashore, leaving an estimated 18,000 people dead or missing.
Namie’s residents were evacuated after the tsunami tipped the nuclear power plant into meltdown, and no-one has yet been allowed to move back due to the radiation.
Niitsuma, 70, is one of 10 local volunteer guides who organize tours to sights in Namie and other communities in Fukushima, including the tightly regulated areas.
The volunteers take visitors through the shells of buildings left untouched as extremely high radiation discouraged demolition work. The guides use dosimeters to avoid any hot spots.
A tsunami-hit elementary school is another stop on the morbid tour.
The clocks in the classrooms stopped at 3:38 p.m., the exact moment the killer waves swept ashore.
In the gymnasium, a banner for the 2011 graduation ceremony still hangs over a stage and the crippled nuclear plant is visible through shattered windows.
Former high school teacher Akiko Onuki, who survived tsunami that claimed six of her students and a colleague, and is now one of the volunteer guides.
“We must ensure there are no more Fukushimas,” Onuki, 61, said in explaining the reasons behind the tours of her devastated home.
Tourist Chika Kanezawa of Saitama Prefecture said she was shocked by the conditions.
“TV and newspapers report reconstruction is making progress and life is returning to normal,” Kanezawa, 42, said. “But in reality, nothing has changed here.”
Dairy farmer Masami Yoshizawa is still raising about 300 cows in Namie that are subsisting on radiation-contaminated grass in defiance of a government slaughter order.
As Yoshizawa showed off his herd, he explained that he’s keeping the cattle alive as a protest against Tokyo Electric Power Co., which manages the plant, and the government.
“I want to tell people all over the world, ‘What happened to me may happen to you tomorrow’,” Yoshizawa said.
The disaster shattered the government’s carefully cultivated nuclear safety myth and kept its dozens of commercial reactors offline for about two years amid nuclear safety radiation exposure fears.
But the government is gradually restarting them, claiming the resource-poor country needs nuclear power.
English teacher Tom Bridges, who also lives in Saitama, said he could share the victims’ anger and frustration through the tour.
“It’s not a happy trip but it’s a necessary trip,” he said.
Some residents still grieving their loved ones and their inability to return to their homes, say they have mixed feelings watching sightseers tramping through their former hometown.
But Philip Stone, executive director of the Institute for Dark Tourism Research at Britain’s University of Central Lancashire, said recently that such tangible reminders of disasters serve as “warnings from history.”
Niitsuma, who is from Soma, a coastal city some 35 km (just over 20 miles) north of the Fukushima No. 1 plant, says he feels haunted by regret for not having been active in the anti-nuclear movement, even though he opposed reactor construction.
“I should have acted a little more seriously,” he said.
“I’m working as a guide partially to atone.”