TIME photo essay

Revisiting Japan’s Ground Zero

Five months after the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster that killed as many as 22,000 people and displaced nearly 125,000 others, Fukushima prefecture is still struggling to clean up and move on. Photographer William Daniels traveled near the exclusion zone, capturing vacant streets, massive devastation and the people who stayed behind.

Five months after the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster that killed as many as 22,000 people and displaced nearly 125,000 others, Fukushima prefecture is still struggling to clean up and move on. The slow pace of recovery raises the question: Which Japan will win out in the aftermath of the tragedy? Will it be the resilient nation that rose from the ashes of World War II or the country that has become better known over the past two decades for its economic and social torpor?

French photographer William Daniels traveled near the exclusion zone and looked for answers, capturing vacant streets, massive devastation and the people who stayed behind.

“It was a moving experience meeting people who were back home just for a few hours to collect their belongings, or to check if everything is fine in their house” Daniels said. “They had to abandon all of their previous life: house, land, job and livestock because of something totally invisible and impalpable — radiation. Farmers lost all they built during their life. In Iitatemura we met Kennichi Hasegawa, a cow farmer who owned 50 cows. He had to destroy all of them and lives now about 20 km from his farm and really worries for his future.”

But Daniels said the fireworks display in Soma left him with a feeling of hope. “I saw several people crying while watching the show. But there was also a feeling of joy. Children were playing and running around. It was great to feel that for locals, it seems, now may be the time to move on.”

See photos from Japan’s tsunami aftermath, Dispatch from Japan: James Nachtwey’s Impressions in Words and Pictures.

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