School cook documents plight of nuclear refugees on film

by Keiji Hirano


Working as an elementary school cook by day, Satomi Horikiri transforms herself into a film director by night and on weekends, swapping her kitchen knife for a video camera.

Her focus is on those who evacuated one of the two small towns hosting the old Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant that was crippled by the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami.

The entire population of Futaba, Fukushima Prefecture, left during the nuclear crisis at the complex. Around 1,400 people, or some 20 percent of the residents, eventually took shelter at a former high school in Kazo, Saitama Prefecture. The municipal office also relocated to Kazo, which is some 200 km away from Futaba.

A resident of the city of Saitama, Horikiri first visited the evacuees because she thought she could work in the soup kitchen as a volunteer. She was prompted to start filming after hearing one of the elderly evacuees say: “People will eventually forget us.”

“I myself thought that sooner or later people will stop following them, even though they were surrounded by many reporters and photographers at the time,” she said. “So I thought, ‘Why don’t I do it?’ “

Since dropping out of a training course for music teachers at a state-run university after becoming disenchanted with college life, Horikiri has been involved in several grass-roots campaigns and volunteer activities to support disabled people.

Five years ago, she took a course at a citizen media center and learned how to film and edit videos.

“I have learned a lot about society through documentary films and I thought it would be fun if I could make them myself,” she said.

Following the nuclear crisis, she continued visiting the evacuation center in Kazo in her spare time, listening to what people had to say. At this stage, she didn’t have her camera running, so it was “just like attending gossip sessions,” she recalls.

“I eventually became aware that it was unbearable for the evacuees, particularly those in their prime, just to hang around and line up with their trays at mealtimes,” she said.

Some evacuees told her about their ambivalent feelings toward the nuclear plant. They admitted enjoying the various benefits that hosting the complex brought, but said they also felt betrayed by Tokyo Electric Power Co. for allowing the nuclear disaster to take almost everything from them.

After gradually gaining the trust of the evacuees, Horikiri was able to interview them on camera. Her yearlong project through March 2012 evolved into her first full-length documentary, “Driven out of a Nuclear Town — A Documentary about the Refugees from Futaba.”

The film presents the people of Futaba in their own words.

A man in his 40s said, “Although I won’t go back to Futaba until the radiation level there falls to zero, I hope I can die where I was born.”

Many of Futaba’s residents eventually returned to Fukushima Prefecture, although they still stay away from their contaminated town. Among them, an elderly man, speaking alongside his family members, said, “We have been showered with radioactivity for a long time. Of course, we know it’s not good for human health, but we have not had any major problems so far. I think it’s OK (to live here).”

A woman with small children said the evacuees sometimes felt uncomfortable interacting with the many volunteers who were helping them at the evacuation center.

“I sometimes couldn’t stand it because I felt they were looking down at us,” she said.

At the center, they struggled to maintain some semblance of normalcy in their lives. One time they held a Bon dance in the summer to commemorate their ancestors and promote exchanges with Kazo residents. They also started a calligraphy course.

Since its first screening at a film festival organized by civil groups in Tokyo in July 2012, Horikiri’s documentary has spread by word of mouth and been shown via independent distribution channels at more than 50 venues nationwide.

It was also screened with Chinese and Korean subtitles at international film festivals in Hong Kong and South Korea in October and November 2013.

Horikiri said that after watching the film, then-Futaba Mayor Katsutaka Idogawa told her he was grateful that the history of the town had been recorded.

In December, the film won her a journalism award named after the late Asahi Shimbun reporter Yayori Matsui.

Eriko Ikeda, a member of the Yayori Journalist Award selection committee, said Horikiri was named “an honorable mention winner for showing future promise” because she “elicited the candid remarks of the Futaba people by winning their trust.”

“And the film clearly shows the cluelessness of nuclear energy policy and the poverty of politics in the wake of the nuclear disaster from the viewpoint of ordinary citizens,” the former NHK director said. “It is a successful example of information gathering and dispatch by a citizen journalist.”

Horikiri has already made a sequel covering the evacuees’ lives from summer 2012 to March 2013.

The sequel indicates that Futaba’s residents have drifted apart and are now at odds over what the vision for their town should be.

Coronavirus banner