Life Before Fukushima in an Irradiated Japanese Ghost Town

An unseen tragedy lurks just outside the frames of Chiyoko Kanno's photo exhibition in Kyoto.

Image: Chiyoko Kanno

It’s been three years since the small Japanese village of Iitate was evacuated and irradiated by the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown. Emptied of its 6,000 residents, the once-idyllic village was transformed into a desolate ghost town overnight, but its pre-nuclear past hasn’t been forgotten.

Chiyoko Kanno, a 68-year-old nurse and photographer living in Namie—another town in Fukushima prefecture that was evacuated after the meltdown—documented life in Iitate in the year before the disaster. Her photos are the focus of a new exhibition at the Kyoto University of Art and Design.

Neighboring area of Namie town. Image: Chiyoko Kanno

The exhibit is simply titled “Life In Iitate Village,” and its uncomplicated name reflects the pastoral elements of the subject matter. Many of the photos portray the adults and children of the village laughing, playing, and working together. The images would almost seem saccharine, if not for the bleak reality that they are meant to call attention to.

“People say that Iitate no longer exists. People cannot go home and decontamination rubbish is piled up there,” Kanno told me in an email.

Radish sisters. Image: Chiyoko Kanno

Iitate’s uninhabitable state is largely due to lackluster cleanup efforts, which have characterized the response to Fukushima. So far, the Tokyo Electric Power Co. has employed depressed, low-paid “liquidators” and homeless people to clean up the mess.

Iitate was evacuated over a month after the meltdown, at a time when life was returning to normal for many in the affected area. After telling villagers for weeks that their village was safe from dangerous radiation levels, Japanese officials decided that Iitate was irradiated and had to be evacuated.

Kenichi Hasegawa, a farmer in Iitate at the time, recounted in his book Fukushima’s Stolen Lives how officials told him and his fellow villagers everything was fine, day after day, until suddenly it wasn’t. A crowdsourcing campaign is currently underway to translate his account into English. Stories like Hasegawa’s, and that of the entire village of Iitate, are fuel for the growing climate of mistrust in Japan regarding official narratives about Fukushima.

Newspaper that could not be distributed, dated March 12, 2011. Image: Chiyoko Kanno

The evacuation was a rushed and confused undertaking, forcing many farmers to resort to killing their animals because they couldn’t take them with them. Though, as Kanno’s photos show, some farm animals such as cattle now roam free in Iitate. One local rumour holds that the village’s oldest man, who was 102 years old, killed himself after hearing that he’d have to leave his home. Village officials would not confirm the story to the Associated Press.

Cows left behind. Image: Chiyoko Kanno

Today, the hardship hasn’t ended. Kanno's comments reflect the all too often unrelenting bleakness of nuclear tragedy; there is no happy ending in Iitate.

“Iitate village cannot recover anymore,” Kanno noted. “It is impossible to decontaminate mountainous areas and young people decided not to return.”

Like the shadows of Hiroshima or the abandoned, crumbling wasteland surrounding Chernobyl, Kanno’s photos allude to an unpictured, unimaginable tragedy. But unlike inanimate relics of nuclear disaster, her images are somehow more evocative and ghostly. They point not to physical obliteration, but to a way of life that has been completely destroyed.

Picnicking at the Riverside. Image: Chiyoko Kanno

Although Iitate is, in Kanno’s estimation, a lost cause, there are still thousands of nuclear refugees stuck in limbo in Japan. Like the Iitate villagers, they were evacuated during the meltdown and they cannot return home. Despite this, the memories of Fukushima are fading outside of the prefecture. Kanno hopes that her photos will help people to remember the tragedy, and to assist those still in need.

“Iitate Village was a very beautiful village which was selected as [one of] the Top 100 Beautiful Villages in Japan, and was fertile in photo opportunities,” Kanno wrote. “I sincerely hope never to repeat the tragedy of Fukushima again.”

Nuclear Power Plant from Namie Town. Image: Chiyoko Kanno