Revisiting Japan’s Ground Zero

2 minute read

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.

Fireworks brighten the sky over Soma, Japan, August 13, 2011. The display was to commemorate those who died after the massive earthquake and tsunami in March.William Daniels—Panos for TIME
Police stand guard at a roadblock near Minamisoma, preventing access to the exclusion zone.William Daniels—Panos for TIME
In Minamisoma, most of which is located in a voluntary-evacuation zone, half the city’s 70,000 residents have left, including 70% of its children.William Daniels—Panos for TIME
A crowd gathers for a fireworks display in Soma, August 13, 2011.William Daniels—Panos for TIME
Rubble and debris line the streets of Minamisoma, August 12, 2011.William Daniels—Panos for TIME
Kouyu Abe tends his garden in Fukushima August 13, 2011. Abe, a Jyoen Temple priest, grows sunflowers and donates them to the community, helping decontaminate radioactive soil.William Daniels—Panos for TIME
Workers prepare a huge hole near a public school in Minamisoma that will be used to bury contaminated soil August 12, 2011. The contaminated soil is covered with a minimum of 20 inches of clean topsoil, a process that officials say has lowered ground radiation levels by 80%.William Daniels—Panos for TIME
Technicians at a radiation screening center in Minamisoma, August 13, 2011. Most of the people screened had come back to the exclusion zone to retrieve their belongings left behind after evacuating in March.William Daniels—Panos for TIME
Makoto Sugiuchi, 80, a farmer that lives a little over a half a mile from the exclusion zone, stopped growing vegetables due to the high levels of radiation in the soil.William Daniels—Panos for TIME
Fruit and vegetables are screened for radiation at a testing center in Koriyama city, August 11, 2011.William Daniels—Panos for TIME
Kennichi Hasegawa, Director of Dairy Farmers’ Cooperative of Fukushima prefecture, visits his evacuated farm August 12, 2011. Hasegawa said he had to kill his livestock that was exposed to high levels of radiation. He now lives in temporary housing in Date city.William Daniels—Panos for TIME
A deserted city within the exclusion zone, August 13, 2011.William Daniels—Panos for TIME
Manabu Takano visits the empty intensive care unit at Watanabe hospital. The unit had to be closed because of the lack of staff. Takano, head nurse at Watanabe, chose not to evacuate and tries to give patients who still come in what care he can.William Daniels—Panos for TIME
The devastated coastline of Minamisoma, August 12, 2011.William Daniels—Panos for TIME
Crowds gather for the memorial fireworks display in Soma, August 13, 2011.William Daniels—Panos for TIME
Girls photograph each other during the memorial fireworks display in Soma, August 13, 2011.William Daniels—Panos for TIME

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