On March 11, 2011, the 9.0-magnitude Great East Japan Earthquake triggered a powerful tsunami that swept the Tohoku region in Northeastern Japan. Residents had less than ten minutes to flee from a 133-foot wave that rushed to shore at speeds up to 435 miles an hour.
The earthquake also triggered three meltdowns at the nearby Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Because of the radioactive fallout, some of the hundreds of thousands of people evacuated will never be able to return home.
Ten years later, anger still simmers beneath the surface about what is widely viewed as Tokyo’s failure to deal with the emergency and its aftermath.
Sacred Cesium Ground
More than other translated works of “Fukushima fiction,” Sacred Cesium Ground is almost a direct allegory for the situation on the ground in Tohoku in the months following the “3/11 Triple Disaster.” Through its use of symbolism, Sacred Cesium Ground is an allegory not only for the aftermath of 3/11, not only for the consequences of generations of neglect of the Tohoku region, but also of the structural problems in Japanese society that left Japan open to a disaster of 3/11’s magnitude in the first place.
The Cows: The people of Tohoku
The novel opens with Nishino (we’re never privy to her first name) beginning a short stint as a volunteer at The Fortress of Hope. The “fortress” is a farm that has taken in irradiated cattle that the government ordered local farmers to cull. These cows are essentially “living debris” leftover when the floodwaters receded.
Using animals to stand in for people is… problematic. Especially when you’re dealing with a group of people who have already been marginalized. In this case, using beef cattle as a symbol for the people of an entire region reminds us that the people of Tohoku were treated as resources—things rather than people—since long before 2011.
In the words of The Fortress of Hope’s ideological leader
“All of us abandoned and forgotten peoples. The thinning out and culling. In the same way that the cattle are being ‘disposed of’: aren’t we too, right now, receiving the same treatment.”
The Fortress of Hope: Tohoku Itself
From the outside, the Fortress of Hope looks like a powerful symbol of Tohoku’s resilience. (The Fortress of Hope is loosely based on the Ranch of Hope, sited within the 20-km Exclusion Zone set by the Japanese government.) Before Nishino arrives, she has imagined it as “some kind of utopia.”
But Nishino discovers the harsh reality about The Fortress of Hope and Tohoku itself soon after she arrives: “this was a space summarily cut loose and left to its own devices.”
Tohoku has a complicated relationship with the rest of Japan. Some scholars even classified the region as an “internal colony.” Tokyo has used the region’s resources and people for centuries, most recently as a site for nuclear power plants. The Fukushima Daiichi Plants were, for example, run by a Tokyo company to meet Tokyo’s electricity needs.
In the weeks that followed 3/11, the Japanese were inundated with calls to “Fight on Japan!” At the time, government leaders presented a united front: all of Japan would work together to recover and rebuild. The messages were messages of hope.
Miko Mari: Opportunistic Japanese politicians
On Nishino’s final day at the farm, she hears that they expect a visitor—the up-and-coming, young and trendy political hotshot Miko Mari. She is “the first politician who had been put on the public stage by a producer, a guy known for promoting bands.” Mari doesn’t expect more from her visit than a photo op with the ranch’s cutest calves and a few soundbites.
Mari herself isn’t really a villain; she doesn’t care enough about the Fortress to be a villain. But her advocacy for Tohoku is all show. The people at the Fotress can’t count on her for any meaningful relief anymore than the people of Tohoku can count on politicians to keep their promises.
“Mudshit”: The radioactive fallout from the Fukushima power plants
Nishino doesn’t resort to profanity often—at least in English translation—but she pulls no punches when she describes the filth at the Fortress of Hope.
This mudshit is no ordinary ranching runoff: it is contaminated by radioactive fallout. The novel’s grotesque climax reminds us that the shit is also made up of the bodies of the dead. One character describes what happened to the cows who starved to death after 3/11: before they could be rescued
Bodies in a big tub, full of piss…There was so many flies the air looked black. So many, when you breathed they came into your nostrils and you couldn’t open your eyes. On the ground at your feet, big fat maggots, everywhere. You couldn’t walk without stepping on them; when you stepped on them they would go pop, pop.
Later, Nishino falls into the muck. She scoops up a handful for the horrified politician. “Take a good look at this,” she insists “This is evidence of life.”
This mudshit, this cesium mudshit, this filled-to-the-brim proof-of-cows-that-had-lived-and-had-been-abandoned—I thrust it before [Mari’s] eyes.
What about Nishino?
Nishino, stands in for all of Japan’s marginalized people.
Rachel DiNitto, author of Fukushima Fiction: The Literary Landscape of Japan’s Triple Disaster observes that “the narrative thrust of the story appropriates the nuclear disaster in order to tell Nishino’s personal narrative.” DiNitto’s criticism is generally more nuanced, but this comment rather misses the point. The long-term cost of the 3/11 disaster—broken communities, irrecoverable careers, mental illness, nuclear fallout—are borne by Tohoku residents precisely because they are, have always been, Japan’s marginalized.
It’s also worth noting that Nishino identifies as a cow herself; she doesn’t just emotionally connect with the cows but is, in a meaningful sense, one of them. She notes how the language of the temp agency she once worked at (“human capital” and “human resources”) connotes that the workers are, like the cattle, merely a means to an end. In a flashback to a scene of domestic abuse, her husband calls her a cow. She simply accepts it:
I had become a cow. With the hooves of my front feet, I was skillfully holding the chopsticks and the rice bowl.
Why, Nishino asks herself, does she always go back to her husband?:
Why did I accept that change each and every time? I knew I was going to be betrayed yet again in the future. What was I hanging on to?
Her quiet resolution to leave her husband at the end of the novel is a hopeful note for Japanese society. Maybe Japan, too, rid itself of a system that leaves so many behind.