“The level of the contamination is too high to be inhabitable,” says photographer Nobuhiko Ito about the ever-present danger around the vicinity of the former Fukushima nuclear plant. A decade-old event that Japan is still recovering from, the impact of the accident there and resulting economic fallout was felt around the world for quite some time. As with all nuclear plant incidents, questions remain over whether life will ever return to normal in the surrounding areas.
Dominating the news for many weeks that year, the Fukushima Daiichi Accident, as it’s officially known, occurred at the city’s nuclear plant following a tsunami caused by a major earthquake in March, 2011. Almost 14-meter-high waves lashed the plant, flooding and severe damages reactors. It was classified as the most severe nuclear accident since Chernobyl, and over 150,000 people were evacuated from the city. Radiation-contaminated water seep into the Pacific Ocean for many days after the incident, even as late as 2013. It was estimated then that decontamination efforts could last up to 40 years. Almost a decade from later, Japanese photographer Nobuhiko Ito has begun a project to safely photograph the areas surrounding Fukushima. Large parts of it are still off-limits to the public.
The Essential Photo Gear Used By Nobuhiko Ito
Nobuhiko told us:
The camera was mounted horizontally on a tripod, and the shift lens was used to take three shots: center, right, and left. Stitching was done in Photoshop or Lightroom. Areas that did not merge well were corrected by hand.
The Phobographer: Hi Nobuhiko. Please tell us about yourself and how you got into photography.
Nobuhiko Ito: I was born in 1970 in Kanagawa prefecture, Japan. I started taking pictures when I was 15 years old and have been involved in photography ever since. In 1998, I studied under photographer Hiromi Tsuchida. I became an independent photographer in 2003, and since then, I have been an active freelancer. Although I was not aware of it when I was young, the fact that seeing things through a camera is an objective and critical act is the most important reason why I continue to express myself through photography.
Photography is basically a solo activity, and I think I have been able to continue to do it because I am suited to this kind of work.
The Phobographer: Where were you when the Fukushima Daiichi Accident occured? What was the general feeling for the next few days in your vicinity?
Nobuhiko Ito: The earthquake occurred at 14:46 on March 11, 2011, and approximately one hour later, the nuclear reactor meltdown caused by the loss of power due to tsunami damage was a direct cause of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident. This was followed by three hydrogen explosions on March 12, 14, and 15, resulting in a serious situation in which a wide area of more than 30 km radius was contaminated by radioactive materials. I was in Tokyo when the earthquake hit, and I was scheduled to have a work meeting with a client at 3:00 pm I felt kind of silly because I was still meeting at the client’s office as scheduled, even with the numerous aftershocks that hit afterward. I drove myself home to my house in Yokohama, about 30 kilometers away, at around 5:00 pm All public transportation was stopped, the roads were jammed badly, and the sidewalks were full of people walking home, which was an unusual situation. It took me about 8 hours to get home, where it usually takes me about 45 minutes. It took me twice as long as it would have taken me to walk home.
I was in a car stuck in traffic, checking with relatives on my cell phone to make sure they were safe and listening to the news bulletins that came in one after another, but I was already worried about the meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant at that point. I spent the next week or so at home. I heard that some people were buying up water, food, and stockpiles, but I did not act rashly and stayed put.
The Phobographer: How long have you been working on your book, A Decade of Fukushima? Typically how many images do you photograph of the surrounding areas of the nuclear plant site each year?
Nobuhiko Ito: I started taking pictures in April 2020, so as of now it has only been 2 years and 6 months. When I started filming, it had been 9 years since the Great East Japan Earthquake and the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant accident and the people of this country were beginning to have fading memories of it. I may be one of them, but one thing that sets me apart from the rest of the survivors is that I have been visiting companies based around the hard-to-return zone in Fukushima Prefecture several times a year for commercial photography assignments since 2009, before the accident.
During those nine years, I watched the transition of the area from a moving car window. Buildings destroyed by the tsunami and left abandoned, cars washed away and rusting in the middle of fields, natural scenery where the topsoil is being gouged away by the large-scale decontamination work started by the government sometime after the accident… As a person involved in photography, I felt frustrated that I could do nothing in the face of this serious problem.
What prompted me to start taking photos of the hard-to-return zones in Fukushima was the fact that the 2020 Olympics would be held in Tokyo, the capital of this country. The government had billed it as a “reconstruction Olympics,” but this was not accompanied by any substance. The Olympics were postponed for a year due to the coronavirus, but I decided to document the hard-to-return areas of Fukushima, which have been neglected as time passed. The number of photos I take in a year is between 1,000 and 2,000, but in my case, I combine three shots into one, so the actual number would be one-third of that number. As you can see, the number of locations I photograph from a fixed point has been increasing, and the more times I go to Fukushima to take photographs, the more I move from searching for shooting locations to aiming for locations where I have already taken photographs one after another.
The Phobographer: With so much happening in the world, people tend to forget the recent past. Is this like a documentation project so that the memory of the Fukushima Daiichi Accident doesn’t fade too soon?
Nobuhiko Ito: Yes, it is.
The displacement due to parallax caused when the lens was shifted to the left and right lenses (the left and right lenses moved 12mm each) was corrected. The Really Right Stuff camera plate and quick release clamps have been very helpful when moving the camera body 12mm in the opposite direction parallel to the lens.
The Phobographer: What were some of the challenges you faced in order to gain access to the surrounding areas? What safety measures did you take while doing this project?
Nobuhiko Ito: In my case, I do not go into areas that are forbidden to enter, and most of the time, I stay within their boundaries. However, the difficult-to-return zone does not mean that the entire area is sealed off. The roads that pass through the zone have gradually been open to anyone without permission since about the third year after the accident, and the area continues to expand. However, perhaps due to concerns about radiation exposure, in many cases, passage by car is permitted, but passage by foot or motorcycle is prohibited. Therefore, it is common to be questioned by police officers when you get out of your car and take pictures, as I did.
The Phobographer: When visiting an area like this, which has been fenced off so much, how do you get images that are visually distinct from each other?
Nobuhiko Ito: Fences essentially restrict vehicular access, so it is easily possible to enter on foot. Some of the fences are such that the meaning of their installation is not clear. It may have been necessary to draw a line somewhere due to high or low radiation levels. However, considering what happened before the accident, we must be well aware of what this unusual view that is now spreading before our eyes means.
The Phobographer: You’ve added the radiation level (μsv/h) alongside each photograph. Were there any sites where you noticed a dangerous level of radiation after arriving there?
Nobuhiko Ito: I try to record them at the same time because, unlike photographs, radiation levels are invisible. Most of the photo sites are on paved roads, and the measurements were taken at 1 meter above the ground.
Although there are regional differences, the mountains, forests, and former farmland on either side of the road have been left undisturbed since the accident and have not been decontaminated, so if you go into the area and take measurements, the radiation levels jump. The level of contamination is too high to be inhabitable.
The Phobographer: why was a panorama format chosen for this project?
Nobuhiko Ito: It is obvious, but we felt that the usual one shot was not enough to show the left and right sides of the area. When shooting with a fence in the center, it was necessary to capture a wide area in order to grasp the landscape at that point.
The Phobographer: How long do you think it will take for life to return to normal in these areas (if ever)?
Nobuhiko Ito: Although it may not be well known internationally, government-led efforts are underway to intensively decontaminate parts of the hard-to-return zones to improve living infrastructure and promote re-housing there, and some people have returned this year. However, that is really a very small number.
Most of the areas within the zone are mountain forests, and it is practically impossible to remove the radioactive materials that have fallen on them to a complete level, let alone to make them safe, and it is meaningless to decontaminate only the areas with villages surrounded by these forests. Although it is very unfortunate, we have to assume that it is impossible for people to be able to live a normal life in these areas.
All images by Nobuhiko Ito. Used with permission. Visit his website as well as his Instagram and Facebook pages to stay up to date on this project. Want to be featured? Click here to find out how.