National | 3/11: Rebuilding Tohoku

Futaba's nuclear crisis museum will let objects tell the story of 3/11 meltdowns

by Hidetoshi Takada


Takamitsu Yoshino, 57, a former curator at the town’s historical museum, collects loads of items like makeshift tables and changing rooms made of cardboard boxes, along with counseling notices and even a volunteer reception sign.

At first glance, they appear to be a jumble of meaningless items. But they illustrate what people in the town of Futaba, Fukushima Prefecture, went through when calamity struck at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant after the March 11, 2011, mega-quake and tsunami.

Almost all of Futaba’s nearly 7,000 residents are still unable to return as 96 percent of the town remains a no-go zone. To record the experience for the next generation, Yoshino and other officials hope to build a museum that will become home to the stories of its displaced population.

“People might forget about us as time goes by, just as I gradually became less concerned about the aftermath of Kobe,” said Yoshino, who is in charge of the museum project, referring to the 1995 Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake that killed more than 6,000 people.

Yoshino evacuated Futaba on March 12, leaving with just a little cash and a credit card. At one point, he had only been able to bathe three times in two weeks. Eventually, he reunited with his wife two months later.

Yoshino was dumbstruck by the lack of basic relief supplies during the ordeal, such as the blankets passed out to some 1,200 evacuees at a former high school he stayed at in Saitama Prefecture. The elderly had an especially rough time coping.

His life in nuclear exile took him to several places throughout eastern Japan and he covered more than 420 km over the two-year period.

But all the while, he kept an eye out for items to save under the instructions of Futaba’s mayor.

Tetsuya Shirai, a professor specializing in local history and archival science at the University of Tsukuba, started discussing the preservation project with Yoshino a year after the quake.

Over lunch, Yoshino told Shirai about the power of physical objects in telling stories, Shirai said.

Shirai vividly recalls the remarks and was convinced the untold stories of the calamity could be conveyed through a collection of objects, calling them “the greatest tools” for doing so.

The ¥5.5 billion (about $52 million) museum project is supported by a number of nonprofit organizations, academics and volunteers who have contributed thousands of articles from emergency shelters in Futaba.

Items have also been received from temporary housing units across eastern Japan, including over 10,000 images. Interviews, personal memos and photos also tell the story of Futaba’s displaced, who have been dubbed Japan’s nuclear refugees.

Shirai analyzed the phone calls made by Tokyo Electric Power Co., manager of Fukushima No. 1, to Futaba Town Hall to explain the condition of the overheating reactors in the days after the quake. Tepco has since changed its name to Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc.

Despite difficulties grasping the intangible effects and profound consequences of the nuclear crisis, four of the town’s poster-sized records of the exchanges “can elucidate what was happening inside the plant and even the reactors,” Shirai said. The recordings also can convey to developing countries the dangers of exploiting atomic power.

The team under the pair’s leadership has accumulated around 170 boxes of artifacts that could fill a 4-ton truck.

Some of them were used in a special five-month exhibition at the National Museum of Taiwan History that closed last December, highlighting the experience for Japan’s seismic next-door neighbor.

The Futaba museum will have around 5,200 sq. meters of floor space and be built on a plot in the less tainted 4 percent of Futaba that’s been told its evacuation order will be lifted. The exhibition is expected to be multilingual.

Futaba Mayor Shiro Izawa said in a recent interview that “it is significant that the archive facility, funded by Fukushima Prefecture, will reside in Futaba because the town was the most affected area.”

Futaba and the nearby towns of Okuma and Tomioka are planning to build separate facilities to help because the larger museum won’t have enough exhibition space.

“We must pass down the records to the next generations as our unparalleled experience in the world’s history should be remembered,” Izawa said. “This is the third lesson from nuclear technology, after the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as (the disaster in) Chernobyl.”

The museum is scheduled to open before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics and hopes to draw foreign visitors.

Yoshino now sits on the board of education in Iwaki, a city about 40 km south of Futaba that is hosting the Futaba Municipal Government. He has made around 160 special trips to Futaba to rescue “cultural properties” for storage elsewhere.

The preserved items include an avalanche of sympathy letters, origami cranes and message boards of encouragement from around the globe, including from Kobe, Taiwan, Hawaii and Russia.

“We will not just show our suffering and fate. I want to inform the world of how much we have been supported.”

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