Watch the new documentary Alone in the Zone, produced by VICE Japan for their YouTube channel
Interview and photos by Ivan Kovac and Jeffrey Jousan Article translated from the Japanese by Luke Baker
Today marks the second anniversary of the earthquake that devastated Japan and caused one of the most serious nuclear disasters in world history, when the Fukushima Daiichi power plant started leaking radiation. The surrounding towns were evacuated in a rush, leaving empty homes, silent streets, and uncared-for animals. In the small town of Tomioka, however, less than six miles away from the Fukushima Daiichi plant, one man refused to leave: Naoto Matsumura, a 53-year-old fifth-generation rice farmer who is surely the most stubborn man in Japan, if not the world.
“I was born and raised in this town,” he told us. “When I die, it’s going to be in Tomioka.” Naoto’s face is browned by the sun and wrinkled from smiling; his dark eyes peer out from under heavy lids—it’s not the face of someone you’d expect to defy the government by living in an area other people aren’t even allowed to visit, but Naoto wears his iconoclasm lightly.
Because he is being bombarded with as much as 17 times the amount of radiation a normal person is, and because for a while he was eating meat, vegetables, and fish that were contaminated by radiation, as well, some researchers at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency wanted to run some tests on him. “When I went down and let them look me over, they told me I was the ‘champion,’” he said, meaning he had the highest level of radiation exposure in Japan. “But they also told me that I wouldn’t get sick for 30 or 40 years. I’ll most likely be dead by then anyway, so I couldn’t care less.”
You might remember that way back in March 2011, a major tsunami struck the northeast shores of Japan, devastating the country and causing the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant’s cooling systems to break down, which resulted in the worst nuclear meltdown since Chernobyl. Even if you don’t recall that disaster, photographer Toshiya Watanabe does. His family home, Namie, where his mother and cousins still lived, was directly in the path of both the rising waters and the waves of radiation that came after. Nowadays, the town and all the others like it in the disaster zone sit abandoned, unchanged in the past two years, like a ghost town where the ghosts are nuclear-charged stray dogs and cattle. Toshiya has traveled back to his hometown many times, documenting the changes he saw, or lack thereof. We chatted with him about visiting the “no-go zone” that is now his hometown.
VICE: Hey, Toshiya. I know you weren’t there, but what did your family tell you about what the day of the tsunami was like? Toshiya Watanabe: After the earthquake and the tsunami that followed, my family, together with other people in town, spent the night at the local gym. The trouble hadn’t started at the nuclear power plant then, so at dawn, everyone started helping those whose houses had been hit by the tsunami. Although the damages from the tsunami were great, no one could imagine the worst that was still to come. On March 12, the day after the tsunami hit, the government announced that residents within six and a half miles of the nuclear power plant needed to evacuate immediately. There was no time to pick up their belongings; people just left in cars and buses. The first explosion at the plant happened at three in the afternoon that day.
What motivated you to go back and photograph your hometown? Were you allowed to be there? Two months after the meltdown at the nuclear power plant, no one could go within 12 miles of the power plant without permission. When I first got permission to go back on June 12, I thought it could be the last time I’d ever visit there, so I thought I had to record as much as I could of my hometown. Since then, I was given permission to go back in November 2011, as well as April, June, and September of 2012. I went back with my mother to get things she needed, and while tidying up, I made more pictures. I just wanted to document how my hometown was changing, or not changing, nothing more.
What was it like to see the place where you used to live completely empty of humans? It looks like something out of a zombie movie. When I first went there, time had stopped and everything was just the way it was when the tsunami hit. A town I was so familiar with felt like a science-fiction movie set all of a sudden. I remember feeling dizzy a few times.There were no people there, only the sound of the wind and birds, and when I closed my eyes, it felt like I was standing in the middle of a forest.
In the second episode, Picture Perfect travels to Tokyo, Japan where we meet up with Canadian photographer Donald Weber to discuss his ongoing documentation of life in Chernobyl, his interest in power roles, and his photographic practice.
We then go with Weber inside the buffer zone at Fukushima, where the eerie silence mirrors that at Chernobyl, and follow him as he attempts to document the unfolding nuclear crisis.