Fukushima not just about nuke crisis

Prefecture hopes rich history, abundant nature fuel revival


Staff Writer

The Tohoku region continues to struggle beyond the first anniversary of the March 11, 2011, Great East Japan Earthquake, particularly Fukushima Prefecture, whose recovery is being greatly hampered by the triple-meltdown crisis at a coastal nuclear plant.

But before the severity of the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster was put on a par with Chernobyl on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale at level 7, the prefecture was synonymous with less infamous attributes, including abundant nature and agriculture and a rich history.

Following are questions and answers regarding Fukushima:

What are the geographical basics of Fukushima?

Covering an area of 13,782 sq. km, Fukushima is slightly smaller than Connecticut but is the third-largest prefecture, trailing only Hokkaido and Iwate.

The prefecture is often divided into three geographic north-south regions. The area along the Pacific coast is called Hama-Dori and includes the ports of Iwaki as well as Okuma and Futaba, which host the Fukushima No. 1 plant.

Naka-Dori, through which the Tohoku Shinkansen Line runs, has the major cities, including the capital, Fukushima, as well as Koriyama.

The mountainous Aizu region makes up the western edge.

Aizu is known for its snow and ski resorts, while southern Hama-Dori seldom sees snow. The town of Hirono, about 23 km from the crippled nuclear plant, is the northernmost place to see “mikan” (mandarin oranges) grow in the wild.

The prefecture’s population as of 2008 was 2.06 million, but in the past year thousands have evacuated elsewhere in Japan amid radiation fears, and certain areas will be uninhabitable for decades.

What are its major cities?

Iwaki, Koriyama and Fukushima are regarded the top three cities in terms of population and economic scale, with each having approximately 300,000 people.

The capital, where Fukushima Castle once stood, is the administrative center.

Koriyama is meanwhile regarded the business and industrial center of Fukushima as well as its transportation hub, since it connects all three regions.

According to the city’s website, however, Koriyama also gained a reputation for high crime as its population grew rapidly amid its industrialization in the early 20th century. Because of the arrival of underworld elements, Koriyama was once dubbed “Tohoku’s Chicago” due to violent yakuza turf wars. Since then, crime has eased and Koriyama now touts itself as “Tohoku’s Vienna,” hosting a variety of musical events.

Iwaki meanwhile started out as a coal mining town and later developed into a resort area. Today it is home to the Hawaii-themed Spa Resort Hawaiians and numerous fishing harbors.

During the Edo Period (1603-1867), the Soma domain ruled the area where the nuclear power plant now sits. In addition to fisheries, the clan was known for its production of salt, according to the book “Fukushima-ken Nazotoki Sanpo” (“Traveling through Fukushima’s Mysteries”) by Rokuro Kobiyama.

How big is its economy?

Fukushima had a gross domestic product of ¥7.22 trillion in fiscal 2009 and is often ranked among the top 20 prefectures.

Major companies headquartered in Fukushima include ramen franchise Kourakuen Corp., sporting goods retailer Xebio Co. and fashion retailer Honeys Co.

Is Fukushima a key agricultural area?

According to farm ministry data, Fukushima generated ¥245 billion worth of agriculture in 2009, ranking it seventh in the nation.

The prefecture also has abundant fishing grounds, thanks to a strong northward current that meets a southbound rival just offshore, before flowing farther east into the Pacific.

“More than 100 types of fish, including bonito, flounder and octopus are caught” in Fukushima, the prefecture’s website says.

Unfortunately, the nuclear crisis caused thousands of tons of radioactive water to be dumped into the sea, which, along with the airborne fallout from the plant, has entered the seafood chain and effectively halted all fishing activities.

Who are some of the prefecture’s prominent natives?

Bacteriologist Hideyo Noguchi (1876-1928), who can be seen on the ¥1,000 bill, hailed from Fukushima, as well as former Yomiuri Giants slugger and current Yokohama DeNA skipper Kiyoshi Nakahata.

Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba was born in the town of Tamura, which is partly within the 20-km no-go zone around the nuclear plant.

Democratic Party of Japan heavyweight Kozo Watanabe is from Aizu.

Eiji Tsuburaya (1901-1970), known for his work on special effects used in such movies as the Ultraman series, was born in the town of Sukagawa. Tsuburaya is also famous for working on the Godzilla movies, which chronicle the battle between mankind and a giant monster produced by atomic radiation.

Who is Yaeko Yamamoto?

Yaeko Yamamoto (1845-1932), a Fukushima native, will be portrayed in the yearlong NHK TV series “Taiga-drama” in 2013. Sometimes referred to as the Edo Period’s Joan of Arc, the Aizu native was a gunnery instructor who fought to protect her clan during the civil war between the Tokugawa shogunate and those who supported the Imperial court (Boshin War). She also served in the Russo-Japanese and Sino-Japanese wars as a nurse.

Yamamoto later married the Rev. Joseph Neesima and played a key role in founding prestigious Doshisha University in Kyoto.

Why did Fukushima decide to host nuclear power plants?

With its rivers and abundant land, Fukushima has long been a source of electricity for the Tokyo area. Its firm geological stratum and ample coastline made it an easy choice when the government decided to build atomic plants.

According to Kobiyama’s book, the first hydroelectric plant was built in Fukushima in 1895. By 1914 the prefecture was using some of the world’s longest transmission lines to provide electricity for the Tokyo area.

Fukushima today also hosts Japan’s largest geothermal plant, operated by Tohoku Electric Power Co. in the town of Yanaizu, and the largest wind farm, situated in Koriyama and operated by Electric Power Development Co. (J-Power).

Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s coastal Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant was completed in 1971. The nearby Fukushima No. 2 nuclear plant was completed in 1982. Fukushima No. 1’s coastal proximity and inadequate sea wall led to its undoing last March when the monster tsunami hit.

What is J-Village?

J-Village was built as a major soccer training facility in 1997 at a cost of ¥13 billion. The bill was footed by Tepco, which offered the facility to locals as part of development aid. Last year, however, it became the staging site for efforts to contain the Fukushima nuclear crisis.

J-Village was developed because the Japan Football Association needed a facility to train and strengthen the national team in its quest to secure a spot in the World Cup.

The facility, which straddles the towns of Hirono and Naraha, was used by Argentina’s national team when Japan cohosted the 2002 World Cup along with South Korea.

JFA officials are reportedly willing to build a new training center in the prefecture, somewhere along the coast, now that J-Village is under government control and unlikely to return to its previous state anytime soon.

What are some of Fukushima’s local delicacies?

Fukushima is home to many sake breweries, and the Kitakata region is famous for its ramen, which features thick, wavy noodles. Some of these specialties can now be purchased in the heart of Tokyo.

According to Junya Tomita of Fukushima Prefecture Tourism & Local Products Association, the best-selling gift at a Fukushima shop near Tokyo Station is “mama-doru,” a baked sweet with a milk-flavored filling made in Koriyama. Other hit items include Koriyama’s “yubeshi” sweets as well as “manju” bean-paste cakes.

Tomita, who has been in Fukushima for six years, also said the prefecture hopes tourists come back because it’s almost cherry blossom time.

Even though most of Fukushima has been declared safe from radiation, the prefecture has seen a substantial drop in tourists from overseas.

“Fukushima is not just about the nuclear power plant. It has so much to offer for visitors. In some aspects it is much safer than other prefectures because Fukushima conducts extensive checks on its food for radiation,” he stressed.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays. Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to hodobu@japantimes.co.jp