This week marks the 12th anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake and the nuclear meltdowns that took place in its wake. Alex K.T. Martin joins us to discuss where Fukushima is in terms of its recovery and drive to repopulate. Of course, before they bring people back, they’ll need to deal with the wild animals that have moved in.

Hosted by Shaun McKenna and produced by Dave Cortez.

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Shaun McKenna  00:08  

Welcome to Deep Dive from The Japan Times. I'm Shaun McKenna. You know we're leaving the COVID era because stories like this are back in the news.

Clip  00:15  

The footage shows a 17-year-old licking soy sauce bottles and cups and touching other customers' sushi with saliva on his hands. This destructive behavior has sent shockwaves through the industry. Could this be the end of conveyor belt sushi? 

Shaun McKenna 00:28

And this one?

Clip  00:29  

Look what washed up on the beach in Japan. In fact, nobody seems to know where it came from or what it is part of. Here's what we do know: the mystery debris is spherical in shape. Conspiracy theories ran rampant with people on social media guessing it was an egg laid by Godzilla, or a dragon ball from the popular cartoon.

Shaun McKenna  00:50  

And at the start of the year, listeners overseas may remember the hullabaloo around the idea that the Japanese government was going to pay people ¥1 million to leave Tokyo.

Dr. Evil 01:00

One million dollars! 

Shaun McKenna 01:02

No Dr. Evil, that's ¥1 million — not dollars. My sister made the same mistake. Still, ¥1 million is a pretty big deal. And you know what's better than ¥1 million? ¥2 million! And that's what the government of Fukushima is offering families willing to relocate to their prefecture. The conditions: You must not have lived in Fukushima within the past three years, and you must stay there for five years and try to start a career or possibly a business there. This week as we mark the 12th anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake. We'll discuss efforts to repopulate the region with people but they're gonna have to deal with the bears, boars and monkeys that have moved in in the year since.

Shaun McKenna 01:49

With me this week to talk about where Fukushima is in its recovery, 12 years after it suffered the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, is Alex Martin. He traveled to Fukushima recently to talk to people about why they're moving back and what life is like there now. Alex, welcome back to Deep Dive.

Alex Martin  02:03  

Thanks, Shaun.

Shaun McKenna  02:04  

First of all, would you move to Fukushima for ¥2 million?

Alex Martin  02:08  

Hmm, good question. Perhaps not, right now. I’ve got a family with two kids that are going to school, ¥2 million is a nice bonus. But it's probably not enough to entice me into moving.

Shaun McKenna  02:17  

Right. It's also like only about $15,000, right? Yeah. Well, you have visited the prefecture several times in the past 12 years. How would you describe the state of its recovery?

Alex Martin  02:29  

Well, this is not just limited to Fukushima, but the other affected prefectures: Miyagi, Iwate, Fukushima. When I visited around that area, right after the disaster, obviously, it was a wreck, right? It's been ravaged by the tsunami and the earthquakes. It's like a war zone, pretty much. But it's been 12 years, you know, a lot of money has been invested in the area. New seawalls, new roads, new communities… I wouldn't say back to what it was before, but it's very clean now. 

Shaun McKenna  02:53  

OK, it might look new. Right. So you may not be up for taking the ¥2 million offer. But for a piece that's coming out this weekend, you spoke to Naomi Yonekawa who did take the offer. Tell us a little bit about her.

Alex Martin  03:05  

Right. So I met Naomi-san at the town of Naraha in Fukushima. That's where she moved in late 2021. So she grew up in Meguro,  I think she said near Daikanyama, so she was a city girl for most of her life. And before the move, she was living in Machida, which is a town in Tokyo. And, I think it was 2016, she took like a coastal tour of Fukushima, basically visiting the affected areas and talking to local people to learn about the area and its culture and all that. And during her trip, she stopped by Naraha, which is where she's living now. I think locals hosted like a small sort of workshop to create these waraji, which are Japanese traditional sandals. I think that memory sort of lingered on for a long time, eventually convincing her that this is the place to move.

Shaun McKenna  03:50  

OK, so she went on this tour, and then she comes back to Tokyo. And then we — meaning the whole world — hit a bit of a rough patch in the form of a global pandemic. And so what happens to Naomi when she comes back?

Alex Martin  04:02  

Well, I mean, she was in Tokyo well before the pandemic began. However, I think it was 2021. So two years ago, in January, just two days before she was supposed to open a small coffee stand — it was her dream to have a lunch/coffee stand. Anyway, her mom dies alone in her apartment. And she scrapped the plans to open the shop because she had to plan for the funeral. And that was settled. So she decided to open her Cafe a few months later in May, I think, and she asked a good friend of hers to create the logo for the new cafe. But this friend of hers had breast cancer and she passed away in July that year. So that’s two death for close family and friend, the same time her son is autistic and he had these panic attacks at school and she would be sort of summoned by his teachers sort of asked about his behavior, and all the stress was piling up and everything was not really working out the way she wanted to be. Yeah. And then one day, I think late that summer, she was on the Odakyu Line. And you know, in Japanese trains, they have these out replacements sort of hanging?Shaun McKenna  05:01


Alex Martin  05:02 

Yeah. Yeah. So one of them was advertising a disaster Memorial Museum that opened in Namie, which is another affected town in Fukushima. And that sort of, I guess, gave her an inspiration. She sort of remembered her trip from five years ago. And she was like, OK, what's going on there? And she went online, and she discovered that Fukushima had just launched, in July 2021, a new sort of relocation migration campaign, asking for people to move into these communities. 

Shaun McKenna  05:29

Could she have gone anywhere in the prefecture? 

Alex Martin 05:31

So the deal was that if you're moving into one of the 12 affected municipalities, this includes cities like Minamisoma, towns like Naraha, even Futaba and Okuma — although those two towns are pretty much off limits still — if you're moving in alone, you get up to ¥1.2 million in grants. If you're moving in with families it’s ¥2 million. So it was a pretty good deal compared to the other sort of rural migration campaigns. That's ongoing, sponsored by the government.

Shaun McKenna  05:59  

  1. And so she moves there with her son and leaves behind her husband and daughter in Tokyo, right?

Alex Martin  06:04  

Right, so she's married, she has two kids — the older daughter is in high school and her husband has work. So she left her husband and her daughter in Tokyo, and she decided to move with her son.

Shaun McKenna  06:15  

OK, and how is that going for her? Does she think she made the right decision?

Alex Martin  06:19  

I think so. Um, I mean, it's a completely different environment. Obviously. She told me that when she took this tour in 2016, she sort of fell in love with the area's rice paddies. Very sort of rural scenery, and she's actually living right by this exact rice paddy that she sort of fell in love with five years ago. I mean, it's like a one story house — very clean, nice. She has a car now, she never drove in Tokyo. I don't think, you know, many of us do anyway, there's so many trains and buses to get around with. So she works on her driving skills, and she works at a local supermarket. It's the first full time job she ever had actually, she was a homemaker for most of her life. But she's a very chatty, sort of happy, outgoing person and seems like she's getting along with the locals. Her kid, her 10-year-old son, seems to be having a much better time at local elementary school and I guess that's sort of a better environment for her son.

Shaun McKenna  07:10  

OK, so is Naomi Yonekawa, kind of, the ideal person that they're trying to attract?

Alex Martin  07:16  

I think so. She's 45. She's relatively young, she has a young kid and she's willing to work. Going back to the whole migration program, you need to commit yourself to be working and living in these municipalities for at least five years, and that's one of the deals, right? So they want people to sort of not just come there, you know, spend a few years and go somewhere else. But someone who can take root and actually settle down for the long haul.

Shaun McKenna  07:39  

Right. So the area these people are returning to, I just want to describe it a little. The Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant sits on the east coast of Japan, and it's about 240 kilometers, or 150 miles, north of Tokyo. The 12 municipalities you mentioned earlier, are all nearby. And there's this thing called the difficult-to-return-to zone which kind of spills westward and northward from the plant, and it touches many of the municipalities, but it completely covers the towns of Futaba and Okuma.

Alex Martin  08:12  

That's correct. These villages and towns had a combined population of about 147,000 people prior to the disaster, that figures now, it stands a little below 65,000. And actually a majority of the 65,000 figure, there are people living in Minamisoma, which is the biggest city among the 12 municipalities. So the other villages and towns, you know, got maybe a few thousand people or less, perhaps.

Shaun McKenna  08:34  

OK, and that's kind of why Fukushima is trying to pay people to come back or just move in for the first time.

Alex Martin  08:39  

Well, the thing is, you know, when these areas fell under evacuation orders, and people were sort of asked to move out, they either moved out to a different cities in Fukushima or elsewhere, some other prefecture, and they would eventually start to take root, you know, they might buy a new house, they might start a new family, they might find a new job. So the thing is, like, you know, now that evacuation orders are lifted for most of the communities, and they want people to come back. It's very hard, once they left the community, to sort of come back again.

Shaun McKenna  09:04  

Yeah, just to catch people up, the evacuation orders started being lifted in 2014, and by 2017, most of the residential areas that weren't in the difficult-to-return-to the zone were cleared for repopulation. But does the mere existence of this zone deter people from moving in? 

Alex Martin  09:23  

Well, the difficult-to-return zone, perhaps, you know, there's maybe a little bit of that radiation stigma still left? The environmental radiation levels in areas outside the no-go zones are fine. You know, there's nothing too much to worry about. But I think if you remember, after the disasters, especially the first few years or so, the farm produced in Fukushima, the fish, I think there was a lot of talk about, you know, whether they're contaminated or not. And the sales plummeted. Agricultural sort of farmers were having a really hard time. And these things, I think they've recovered somewhat but there's sort of like a lingering stigma perhaps attached to the region, unfortunately.

Shaun McKenna  10:00  

Right, well, people may not have been moving in, but in their absence wild animals have more on the area's new residents in a moment.

Clip  10:18  

It's not just fear of radiation preventing residents from returning to Naraha. After years of abandonment, towns in the area have been overrun by wild boars. They are ravaging homes and everything in their path. 

Shaun McKenna  10:43  

Alex, you wrote another piece for The Japan Times this week about “rewilding.” First, can you explain to us what rewilding is?

Alex Martin  10:50  

Well, the definition for rewilding is when wildlife comes back to an area basically restoring land or an area into its uncultivated state.

Shaun McKenna  10:58  

OK, so where was wildlife at the beginning of this disaster?

Alex Martin  11:03  

So when the Fukushima nuclear plant meltdowns happened in March of 2011, scientists say animals in the area were exposed to 100 times the amount of radiation considered safe for them.

Shaun McKenna  11:13  

What animals are you talking about in this case?

Alex Martin  11:15  

So animals that have kind of returned to the area are black bears, for example; wild boars; macaques, which are those snow monkeys you sometimes see in pictures bathing in onsen hot springs; civets, tanuki and deer, and many more. And now let's take the black bears, for example, they're called tsukinowaguma in Japanese. A scientist I spoke to named Koji Yamazaki said he has been setting up a trail cameras in the region to capture footage of these animals and he said he's been surprised that it appeared the bears have been sort of migrating east, some from Niigata Prefecture, east into the more coastal region.

Shaun McKenna  11:49  

Is that enough to affect the human population in the area?

Alex Martin  11:53  

Well, he's been setting up trail cameras in the more coastal regions as well, some closer the reactors some farther away, and he's seen a lot of wild boar, Japanese macaques. These animals are known crop raiders, and they have been sort of foraging for food and agricultural land and actually creating quite significant damage. So, yes, these animals are encroaching human populated areas, because it was deserted for quite a long time. 

Shaun McKenna  12:20  

Yeah, you said in your piece that it's been a particular problem for Fukushima's farmers that damage from animal life — 70% of it being from like monkeys, wild boar, and civets — cost ¥140 million in 2021, and that's more than $1 million.

Alex Martin  12:36  

Right, and on top of that, for example, in the village of Iitate that I visited, only about 30% of its residents have returned. And it's sort of an inland village in the Abukuma Mountains to the north and west of the Fukushima plant. It has a lot of woodland, it's very mountainous, so animals are thriving there. And they're venturing into town and scavenging farms and gardens.

Shaun McKenna  12:57  

You were also saying in your piece that while those inhabited areas have been largely decontaminated, the same can't be said for the forest and mountain areas, is that right?

Alex Martin  13:06  

Right. I mean, it's a vast area that you know, covers. And these animals will be eating, perhaps radiation-contaminated fruit, meaning there's some sort of exposure to radiation exposure in them that can be detected. Interesting thing is that scientists have been monitoring, for example, the monkeys because they're our closest relatives, as primates, and they've noticed that there hasn't been a major impact on the ones that live there now in terms of radiation exposure and the impact of that to their physiological systems.

Shaun McKenna  13:32  

Really, there hasn't been anything that's gone wrong with them?

Alex Martin  13:35  

No, no, I mean, there have been various anomalies being observed. For example, the monkeys in the area are slightly anemic, and they have fewer bone marrow cells. So the scientists aren't saying everything is OK, obviously, they want to continue their studies, of course, to check for long-term effects. So while various effects have been observed, I think the conclusion so far is that there are no major, major anomalies being observed in these animals so far, but research continues. And, you know, scientists are also checking wild boar because they're related to pigs and pigs have very similar immune systems to humans. They are finding radiation in the boars and it is affecting their immune system somewhat, but it's not to an extent where you'll find sort of Godzilla boars roaming around.

Shaun McKenna  14:21  

Well, that's good news. I will say though, my trainer has family out in Ibaraki and Chiba and he says that there has been an increase in wild boar there, and that people have been hunting them for food, but he doesn't recommend it. He says they're kind of mangy looking.

Alex Martin  14:35  

Yeah, right now the rise in boar population is more of a problem with regards to the safety of the people living there and to their property, especially agricultural crops, produce. So hunting associations in Fukshima have been trying to cull the population before it gets out of hand. I will say that I wouldn't recommend eating the boar from the coastal region, perhaps because of the possibility of exposure to radiation.

Shaun McKenna  14:56  

Yeah, OK. No worries. I'll keep it off my menu. But Fukushima isn't the only region that's having to deal with an increase in boars and bears, however, more on that after the break.

Clip 15:14

Robot wolf sounds

Shaun McKenna 15:24

What you're hearing there is a robotic wolf that was created to scare away bears. Alex, you've done a lot of research on the Japanese wolf. No luck finding one just yet. But how about you describe this robotic wolf to our listeners?

Alex Martin  15:36  

Sure. It's about the size of, I guess mid-sized to large-size dog. It has brown shaggy fur, glowing red eyes and really looks like something out of the “Thriller” video.

Shaun McKenna  15:48  

Too bad. It doesn't sound like Michael Jackson. Yeah. So you wrote about this contraction last year as part of a piece titled, “With wildlife pests on the rise, Japan turns to novel countermeasures.” We'll put a link to that in the show notes. It seems from reading that article, Fukushima isn't the only place that is dealing with rewilding.

Alex Martin  16:07  

Right. Well, you might not want to call it rewilding and other areas perhaps in the strict terms of the definition, but yeah, um, wild boar and deer especially have been creating a lot of damage all across Japan, actually. I think in recent years, the damage has been around ¥16 billion a year — boar, deer, macaques, tanuki, these animals have been ravaging a lot of farmland.

Shaun McKenna  16:30 

What's causing this increase in the animal population?

Alex Martin  16:33  

So Japan wasn't always teeming with wild animals. In fact, many of these species were on the verge of extinction by the early 20th century, the nation was really hungry for natural resources amid its rapid modernization. That demolished these wild animals habitats — coal and copper mine projects destroyed mountains, the forests were raised for lumber and charcoal, a flourishing pelt market saw animals fervently hunted down. So it was only after World War II that legal protection began to be established for these animals, it was also a period that saw Japan embark on a nationwide reforestation campaign, and an effort to rebuild the country's wood stocks. Such measures saw the population of wild animals recover — initially unbeknownst to their human predators. And in the 1980s, I think people started seeing cases of deer suddenly appearing in farms and causing all sorts of damage. But since these animals were banned from being hunted or captured, according to regulations, there wasn't much people really could do about them. And then in 1999, the wildlife protection and hunting law underwent a major revision, and Japan's first wildlife management system was introduced. And this was aimed at conserving biodiversity and controlling pest damage, and what this means is that prefectures can now stipulate their own plans based on data and expert opinions to create like a nice balance in terms of animal population.

Shaun McKenna  17:44  

So in the case of Fukushima, I can understand that there's been a lack of people living there, so it may prove more attractive to wild animals. But how do you explain the rise in other parts of the country?

Alex Martin  17:56  

Well, it goes back to Japan's demographic issue — depopulation, the graying population — a lot of rural villages, their populations are shrinking, some are even becoming abandoned, we call them “haison,” abandoned villages. So what happens is, you know, areas where people used to live are now being overtaken by wildlife. And this has been probably the case with Fukushima as well, before the disaster. It's like a national phenomenon, right? You cannot invest in these rural villages as much as you can before, just because you don't have enough people there. So what happened in Fukushima was, you have this demographic issue, the wildlife proliferation issue as the same as anywhere else in Japan. And then the disaster strikes and you have these vast swaths of land suddenly deserted. So, in a sense, perhaps, what we're seeing in Fukushima now, in terms of wildlife proliferation is what perhaps other regional or rural communities in Japan might face in the coming decades.

Shaun McKenna  18:49  

Right. So it's almost like in Fukushima, it was sped up because of the disaster. But really, this is something that's been playing out in other parts of Japan over a number of decades.

Alex Martin  18:59  

Right. So in many places, animals are causing damage to crops, other produce, and in some cases, they're causing physical harm to the local population, which naturally led to the rise in people trying to hunt them down.

Shaun McKenna  19:10  

I actually don't associate Japan with being a nation of hunters. 

Alex Martin  19:14  

Well, it's very difficult to get a gun here, Japan’s famously strict when it comes to gun laws. However, you can go hunting, you can get a license, if you invest yourself for a few months, take a test, get a background check from the police. And there are, as I mentioned before, there are a hunting associations, many hunting associations, I think almost all municipalities have them, because they need to cull these wild animals to protect their crops. But then it goes back to the whole aging Japan issue. These hunters are getting old, I think they're having a hard time recruiting more younger hunters, and that leads to sort of other methods to keep them away. I think the most popular and effective are having these electrified fences. Um, however, they can be quite expensive and difficult to maintain.

Shaun McKenna  19:57  

I mean, they can't be more expensive than robotic wolves? 

Alex Martin  20:00  

Right, yeah, those wolves are, I think, quite expensive, actually. 

Shaun McKenna  20:03  

Were those wolves a success? 

Alex Martin  20:05  

Well, if you recall, a few years back when they actually first produced it, a lot of foreign media really jumped onto the robotic wolf. Yeah, most of the big newspapers and magazines, or news outlets sort of feature them because it's, you know, the visuals are quite sort of entertaining, if I can say that, and I think it did work in certain communities. The problem is, you know, wild boar are extremely smart animals, and once they realize that, you know, it's a gimmick, they might sort of like realize that, I don't need to be scared of these sort of robot wolves, and they start sort of going under their radar. So what the company is doing now is they're they teamed up with a carmaker and they want to make like an autonomous robotic wolf that can move on its own, and things like that. Various, you know, new technologies are being incorporated, but the battle wages on.

Shaun McKenna  20:50  

Indeed it does. Alex Martin, thanks for joining us again on Deep Dive.

Alex Martin  20:55  

Thank you, Shaun.

Shaun McKenna  21:02  

My thanks again to Alex for coming on the show. He's written extensively about the problems rural Japan is facing with dwindling populations. We'll put links to those stories mentioned in the podcast in the show notes. 

Elsewhere in the Japan Times, the Cabinet approved a bill Tuesday that seeks to improve immigration law. The opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan says the bill is unacceptable in its current form, and isn't in line with international standards. And Japan's Aerospace Exploration Agency suffered a setback when its next-generation H3 rocket failed after liftoff on Tuesday, prompting the agency to issue a self destruct command. The H3 had been billed as a flexible and cost-effective new flagship. The space agency now says it will need to investigate the data. The incident came a week after JAXA announced two new candidates to become astronauts: 46-year-old disaster prevention specialist Makoto Suwa, and 28-year-old surgeon Aiyu Yoneda. Yoneda is now on track to become the third Japanese woman in space after Chiaki Mukai and Naoko Yamazaki. 

For more news on Japan, Asia and beyond, visit our website at If you've enjoyed this week's episode, please do leave us a rating or review on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or whatever podcasting platform you use. It really does help others find the show. Production for deep dive is by Dave Cortez. Our intern is Natalia Makohon, the outgoing song was written by Oscar Boyd and our theme song is by the Japanese musician LLLL. Until next time, I'm Shaun McKenna, podtsukaresama.