My relative, the late poet Shimpei Kusano of Iwaki, Fukushima, once wrote a poem that resonated with the idyllic place I remember the region to be. The entire poem consisted of frogs chorusing. Iwaki is near the epicenter of the March 11 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, as well as the subsequent Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t pray for Japan’s recovery.
Health and safety are the primary concern. The latest food scare is connected to tainted beef from Fukushima cows. The cows were fed radioactively contaminated hay, and the meat eventually made its way to consumers because the authorities’ spot check system for radiation contamination was not functioning as we all thought.
My sister in Tokyo is worried for her 11-year-old son. His appetite is big. What is safe to feed a child? Spinach was on the watch list, but the the ban was lifted. What about carrots and turnips? Scientific words such as Cesium, the chemical element of atomic number 55, an extremely reactive metal, and becquerel, units of radioactivity, have become familiar to Japanese homemakers.
A history of calamity and regrowth
But this is not the first time Japan has faced calamities of such magnitude. My father was born in 1923, the year the deadliest earthquake struck Japan, killing more than 100,000. He survived the tsunami because a man carried him up into the bamboo forests where it was safe. During World War II, the Tokyo air raids turned the city into an inferno, incinerating the lives of another 100,000 or more. In 1945, two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki inflicted casualties estimated at more than 200,000.
Earlier this month, Japan commemorated the 66th anniversary of the attack on Hiroshima. Prime Minister Naoto Kan has pledged a nuclear-free future for the country. It is time we learn a lesson and reconsider our dependency on nuclear energy.
My father remained calm in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. He took the bullet train to Kyoto to view the cherry blossoms in April and to write haiku, as he does every year. Fortunately, Kyoto is more than 500 kilometers (310 miles) from the epicenter of the quake and everything there is safe, but for the first time, my father noticed, the tourists were missing.
According to the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO), 6.7 million foreigners visited Japan in 2007. In 2010, the number topped 8.6 million. As of this May, the figure plummeted 62%. Foreign celebrities have canceled engagements in Japan. Why take a chance?
A champion in Lady Gaga
But Lady Gaga thought otherwise. She threw a benefit concert in Tokyo for the victims of the disaster in June. She enjoyed the food and the city and told her fans that Japan is essentially safe, urging them to visit and help its recovery.
When I was back in May, a nationwide effort to conserve energy had begun. TEPCO, the electric company that runs the damaged nuclear power plant, is posting efficient ways to conserve energy on its website. The neon lights in Tokyo were dimmed. Many people switched to electric fans instead of air conditioning, and gathered in one room in the house so others didn’t have to be cooled.
Despite these difficulties, life in the Shibuya district of Tokyo, where my parents live, is vibrant again with young people. It relieves me to see them idly hanging out in front of 101, a fashion store, with their crazy hair, girly costumes and ridiculously high heels. I did a variation of that when I was a teenager.
Rumors, or fuhyo distort reality
If there is anything that can hurt the Japanese economy it is fuhyo, bad rumors, claiming that Japan is unsafe. Shortly after the earthquake, people driving cars with Fukushima license plates were being turned away from gas stations and restaurants in other cities in Japan.
To help people suffering from fuhyo, many Japanese are buying and eating food from the hisaichi — earthquake and tsunami-affected areas — that have passed the safety tests. With the recent beef scare, stronger inspections or quarantines will be necessary, but any gesture like this helps the country.
The U.S. consulate advises tourists that the health and safety risks to the land areas outside of the 50-mile radius of the Fukushima power plant are low, but asks visitors to take caution. From time to time, the ground still shakes, but this is common after a major earthquake.
As we enter harvest time, we will find out how the crops planted in the spring have fared. All we can do is pray that they are safe for eating.
No matter what happens, we can never give up hope. Despite their devastation, Hiroshima and Nagasaki are once again bustling cities. My nephew, who loves to fish, will spend a week on the island of Hirado in Nagasaki, visiting his grandparents. “Hirado,” he says, “has the best mackerel. The meat is sweet.”
I look forward to going back to Japan in the fall. I am already thinking about the chestnuts and matsutake mushrooms. I will book a sushi dinner with my father at Beniike, the local sushi bar in Shibuya where we’ve been going for more than 25 years. Maybe, if my father is in the right mood, he might share his latest fall haiku.
Japan is a beautiful country. Please visit.
This week’s Zester Soapbox contributor Sonoko Sakai is a food writer and film producer, and blogs about Japanese home cooking and making soba noodles by hand. Her most recent film is “Blindness.” She lives in Los Angeles and Tehachapi.
Photo: Sonoko Sakai. Credit: Alexandre Ermel