Plum wine from an old woman in Kawauchi village

After my stay in Fukushima ended, I took back to Tokyo a large and heavy bottle of plum wine given by an old woman in Kawauchi village. The plum wine made by the old woman is aged 13 years old. She is, or was a farmer who used to cultivate rice, vegetables and plums in her own land and make plum wine every year. But she quit all her life works after the disaster in 2011. An episode I heard from her represented complicated and ambivalent situation in Fukushima that divides people, even families.

Kawauchi village is placed at the east side of Fukushima prefecture and about a third or half of the village area is within 20km from Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant (F1). Because of the distance from F1 and risks of radiation exposure, a village chief declared whole-evacuation and all of the village residents once evacuated from the village in March 2011. After the time, the radiation level in Kawauchi village went down to relatively lower level that was not fatally dangerous to our health. After patient and persistent dialogues between residents many times, the chief declared voluntary returning to the village. The original population of the village was about 3,000 and as of summer 2013, about 40% of residents came back to the village and are living or commuting now.

A main industry in the village is agriculture, and same as other areas in Fukushima, they once stopped cropping. But after trials and monitoring, the radiation level from cultivated rice in 2012 was much much lower than the level of a national restriction, they restarted cropping rice in 2013. It is a good news, isn’t it? However, mere decrease in radiation level doesn’t resolve all the problem in Fukushima.

I visited Kawauchi village with doctors at Fukushima Medical University Hospital to hold a health consultation for residents, and I met the old woman there on that day. During our visit, I talked to residents and asked whether they had any concern about their health and radiation. When they told me some concern, then I took them to the doctors to provide medical advice. Even if not, I just enjoyed conversation with them. In addition to common conditions such as pains in knee or back, many times they asked to the doctors and radiation technicians about health effect of radiation. The old woman was one of them.

She told and asked me, “I quit all my agriculture because my son told me not to eat food in Fukushima. On the other hand, I heard that Kawauchi village is already safe, so I’m not sure which is correct. How safe or dangerous is radiation here actually?”

At health consultation, medical practitioner only can provide information based on medical and epidemiological evidence, but cannot make deceptions of each patient’s behavior on behalf of them. In this case, I and doctors can say, the radiation level in crops in Kawauchi village do not put significant bad effect on our health, but cannot say “You must (or must not) eat them,” or “You should make your son eat them even he insisted not.” We talk only with her, but cannot intervene disagreements within her family or judge her son’s behavior. Each person may have different perspective, evaluation, and opinion about risks of radiation, and actually relative health risks of radiation vary across age, sex and other personal factors.

She told me that, with a little tear, agriculture and making plum wine were her life itself. She was grown up there and lived with nature for long years. For farmers, sharing and eating cultivated fresh and delicious rice and vegetables together with families and village neighbors are one of the best fun times for their work and life time. For farmers, cultivated food is not just nutritional source or goods to sell at market, but rather medium through which people connect with each other, strengthen community, and feel happiness. Before the disaster, of course she used to that, and her son ate her food. But it changed.

Damages caused by the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster were not merely physical ones such as destroying housings and exposure to radiation. But rather, wide and various political, economic, and social factors affected people. Disparity in the amount of compensation each victim receive, habitability of each area, and difference of values and feelings about radiation divides people, even though they were previously lived together as families or neighbors. Our health is not defined by medicine only.

So, what could we do for the old woman, who felt sad about stopping her life work following her son’s opinion but at the same time loving her son and grand children? I didn’t have answer, but just murmured “I wish I would drink your plum wine…,” and she replied to me “Really!? Do you wanna try my plum wine!?” with her face quickly changing to smile. “OK, how long do you stay here? Wait a moment, I’ll go back to my home and give you a plum wine which I made long years ago.” That is the wine I took back to Tokyo. When she came back to a center where we had the consultation with a large bottle, she told me, knowing that I’m 25 years old, “you are almost the same year of my grandchild!”

The plum was really tasty, and I shared it with my friends, talking about this episode. Well, I’m not a real son or grandchild of her, and I never know what happened or will happen in her and her families’ life after that. Nor do I know what is the best way to resolve complicated issues in Fukushima. But I just hope, she the lovely old woman will be fine.


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