It’s the first thing you notice. Electric orange, ripe and luscious persimmons hang from every bough. As we drive through the country and over the glittering, snow-specked mountain range from Fukushima city to Soma on the northeast coast of Japan, we pass many persimmon trees dotting the landscape, all laden with fruit, ready for harvesting.
But this year, the persimmons of Fukushima prefecture will remain untouched. Bounty only for microbial decomposers, they are a silent reminder of the slow-burning, far-reaching menace of a nuclear accident.
Since March 11, local people, long skilled in farming this verdant and fertile region, have added expertise about the effects of radiation to their library of stored knowledge. The persimmons are deemed unsafe, irradiated by the releases from the stricken nuclear plant at Fukushima-Daiichi, 15 miles south of here. I am told the persimmons, which, when peeled and dried by a traditional process, are called hoshigaki, were a local specialty. Now, they have particularly high levels of radioactive contamination.
As we drove through the glistening mountains, I watched the readings of the omnipresent dosimeter dangling casually from the rearview mirror of the car first oscillate, then grow alarmingly. Arriving in front of a children’s summer camp and quietly handed a face mask, there is an ominous beeping sound as the readings—corroborated by a second dosimeter brought to check the calibration—peaked above 1 microsievert per hour. We pass an old local incinerator at work burning refuse, and the numbers spike again.
The people of Fukushima prefecture have become amateur radiologists, tracking radiation from place to place as wind and rain transport it in random patterns across the local landscape. Worried and angry because they have not received accurate information from the Japanese government about the radiation threat, and because they want the government to evacuate more affected areas, the people of Fukushima have had to take matters into their own hands.