Like many parts of Fukushima Prefecture, Koriyama is eerily quiet. Here, people hesitate to venture outside because of the high radiation levels that still plague the city two years after the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster. This physical confinement, combined with the loss of homes, family and friends has created a growing sense of isolation and sorrow among survivors in Japan.
With support from AmeriCares, Koriyama residents can once again experience the joy of planting and raising vegetables in the open air. The “Revitalization through Farming” program, developed through the Single Mothers Forum Fukushima (SMFF), gives survivors a chance to escape the city and travel to a farm to spend time surrounded by nature -- planting and harvesting without fear of radiation.
Participants in the gardening program came to Koriyama as evacuees from surrounding coastal villages and towns. The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster forced evacuations of areas within 30 kilometers of the power plant. Koriyama, which lies 55 kilometers west of the plant, was not included in the evacuation zone.
Prior to the disaster, many participants farmed on their own land, but high cesium levels in the soil now prevent them from eating their harvest. “Being deprived of the opportunity to farm is an immeasurable loss for those who spent their entire lives with their hands in the soil,” explained Ramona Bajema, AmeriCares Japan country director According to Bajema, the program sign-up sheet filled quickly – young children, their mothers and elderly participants -- all eager to touch soil once again.
Big smile in the greenhouse at the Revitalization through Gardening program.
Getting out and active has helped improve the psychological and emotional well being of participants. One woman remarked that before the disaster, she never spent a single day away from her garden. But in the two years since, she had not once touched soil. Another discussed the hopelessness associated with being trapped inside, with little chance to exercise.The Inawashiro program gives participants the precious freedom to walk outside, work their gardens and enjoy the cherry blossoms.
One participant, who was evacuated from Futaba-cho, a town close to the power plant, remarked that before the disaster, she was accustomed to hearing children's voice on a daily basis. In the aftermath, she had to move eight times in search of a safer place. Now, there were no children around her temporary home in Koriyama. She feels stressed and sad that she does not know where she can go next. She said ‘but today, surrounded by the children’s voices, I am relaxed and happy’.
The effect on Fukushima evacuees, both physically and emotionally, has been dramatic. Although they did not know each other beforehand, the participants seemed at ease as they worked. “They are enjoying moments of laughter and quiet moments listening to the breeze, cicadas, and birds.” noted Bajema. “It’s wonderful to see before our very eyes what a difference we’re making.”
According to the World Health Organization, the most burdensome disease in the world today is depression—especially in areas affected by disaster, poverty or conflict. Since 2011, AmeriCares has supported more than 100 gardening programs aimed at improving the health and mental well-being of survivors in post-disaster Japan.