Rebuilding Faith: Fukushima Farmer Finds Support at Tokyo Farmers Market
As a customer at Tokyo’s Nippori Farmers Market starts filling the katakuchi (shallow bamboo basket) that Takako Kimura holds for her, Takako speaks up. “It’s from Aizu Wakamatsu. Is it ok?” The woman, busy scanning Takako’s table groaning with daikon large and small, negi (long onions), broccoli and other winter vegetables, nods her head. “Daijoubu desu,” (“It’s fine,) she says adding a bag of rice to her growing pile of purchases.
Takako and the woman talk a bit more about vegetables and Takako’s version of takuan (a traditional daikon pickle) she brought to the market that day. Heavy rain and strong winds meant customers were scarce, but it gave Takako a little more time to chat and joke with the steady round of regulars in search of her vegetables, rice, and homemade pickles. Usually Sase, another farmer from Aizu Wakamatsu joins her, but he stayed home to tend a wife with a strained shoulder. The two of them make a lively pair as enticing as their vegetables as they talk and laugh with each other and customers.
In the months shortly after the March, 2011 earthquake and disaster, the situation was much different. Takako’s farm and Aizu Wakamatsu in Fukushima Prefecture, a small city roughly 100 kilometers west of the ailing power plant, felt the earthquake and watched footage of the tsunami in grief and horror with the rest of the world. It was the nuclear disaster though, that did the most damage to her farm and prefecture. Radioactive drift from the explosions settled on everything and turned Fukushima, a name that once stood for all that is best about Japanese agriculture, into one synonymous with danger and despair.
Consumer skepticism and distrust in government assurances that food was safe, that the situation at the power plant was under control ran high. The regions farmers, especially those like Takako and Sase from Fukushima, suffered a worse kind of fallout as customers turned away in fear. Questions about the level of radiation on her farm, in her vegetables, and what she was doing about it poured in along with words of comfort and support.
It was a sad, hard time, but Takako empathizes with her customers’ concerns. “Of course,” she says. “Of course, they were worried. The best I could do was answer honestly. I was never angry. I was only accepting and smiling from the bottom of my heart.”
There is a pause, though, as her eyes well up with tears and her voice won’t come as she remembers those days. “I was born in Aizu. I am proud to be from there, but people were afraid of my vegetables. They wanted to help, but they were afraid.”
The Nippori Market, Takako says, has made all the difference. Here she’s found a support that keeps her afloat financially and emotionally. She’s built up a set of regulars that come each month to shop, to buy, to ask how she’s doing. It’s more than she’s received from any other source, including local, prefectural, and national governments. Nippori Market has made her feel less alone.
“I’m always conscious now of my Tokyo customers in everything I do. When I plant, I wonder if they’ll like this vegetable. When I harvest I think about what they prefer in terms of looks and presentation,” she said. She’s added a repertoire of small varieties with her Tokyo customers in mind – small daikon similar in size to a French Breakfast radish and a smaller variety of haksai (chinese cabbage), too. “Tokyo likes cute,” she says with a laugh. She still carries the larger versions of both, though, favored by her Aizu customers as well as some of her Tokyo regulars.
For farmers like Takako, everything – vegetables as well as soil – must be inspected and tested, an arduous process that leaves her tired just thinking about it. She’s had to pay to have her land deeply tilled to turn under and disperse the radiation and bring clean soil to the top. Such a practice dilutes the concentration of contaminated soil and lessens the chance that it will enter the food chain. The result is a much lower level – 0.07 microsieverts – on her farm and in Aizu. (Sleeping next to someone delivers a dose of 0.05 microsieverts while an arm x-ray delivers 1 microsievert.) While not a perfect solution, it is one of a myriad of steps required by a government trying to mitigate the disaster’s effects.
“The questions have died down,” she says. Instead, as she did today, she asks customers if it is ok that her items come from Aizu. She wants to be sure they are aware, that they know. She loves her city and her farm, but she also loves and respects her customers. They trust her to bring the best of her harvest – the most delicious and the safest – each time. A lie would shatter that relationship, marring not just her business but the reputation of her city and region. It is unthinkable.
Takako also believes that the same practice must be extended further than her stall. She is not the only farmer bearing this burden. She believes consumers have a right to know the truth, to feel once again that they can trust the food set before them by other Fukushima farmers, too.
“The government should take every opportunity to tell people that the food is safe or to report the levels,” she says. It is through such pervasive honesty that people will begin to feel they can trust what they find in stores and markets, to not feel resigned to eating food they don’t really believe in.
Another customer ducks under the awning shaking her umbrella and scanning the table. Takako reaches for the katakuchi and smiles broadly as she says, “Irrishaimasai!” (“Welcome!”)
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