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The Priest of Japan’s Forbidden Zone



“Let’s begin,” says Nobuhiko Ise, beginning a rapid rhythm on a taiko drum. This is to call forth the kami, he tells me, to signal the start of a prayer ritual in Shinto, the native religion of Japan. We sit together in Tsushima Inari Jinja, a shrine like many in this country. It is a wooden structure roughly the size of an American bungalow, framed in unpainted wood with white and crimson accents, topped by a gracefully angled roof of copper shingles tarnished warm green with age. A frayed shimenawa, the distinctive braided rope used to delineate Shinto holy spaces, hangs over the entryway. Inside the sanctum, the 91-year-old Ise, clad in a traditional hat and a colorful silk jacket over white robes, puts down the drumsticks and sits atop a tatami mat facing the altar. Then begins to chant: Under the heavenly sky, may all people everywhere have calm, have peace, have lives without misfortune or disaster… 

It is the sort of prayer one might hear at any Shinto shrine on any given day, anywhere in Japan. But this isn’t just anywhere. Tsushima Inari Jinja sits in a “hot zone” heavily contaminated by radioactive fallout from the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant disaster in 2011. This shrine was once the spiritual anchor for an entire village. Now that village is a ghost town, population one. Ise himself, and he only for as long as it takes to carry out his duties. Then he must return to safety outside the zone once again. 

Why does a priest continue ministering to a shrine where nobody comes—where nobody can come? Ise seemed a little surprised at the question when I first contacted him by phone at his home in the city of Fukushima. “I am a Shinto priest,” he told me. “Taking care of the shrine, cleaning and carrying out the rituals, is my job. It is my duty to keep my shrine alive.”

*

At 2:46 in the afternoon of March 11, 2011, a massive earthquake centered off the coast of Japan’s Tohoku region began shaking the country. Later, seismologists would measure it at 9.1 on the Richter scale, the fourth largest since the U.S. Geological Survey officially began tracking global tremors in 1900. 

I remember that afternoon, because I was here in Japan when it happened. It was a beautiful spring day. I had been on a Skype call in my home office in Western Tokyo. There was a lurch. The house creaked, a sound I’d never heard before. Then came the shaking. As a Japanese I’ve experienced countless earthquakes. Most are quick jolts that end in seconds. This one was different. The shaking continued—then grew stronger. The tall bookcase next to my husband’s desk began rattling ominously. “Grab the shoes!” I shouted to my husband—we’d need them if the windows shattered. As he rushed back with the footwear, we opened the sliding door to our deck and crouched outside, unable to stay on our feet. Then, as suddenly as it had begun, the shaking stopped.

“We left with the clothes on our backs. We just assumed it’d be a few days in a disaster shelter and then back home. And now 11 years have passed. Eleven years, and still we can’t go home.”

It was the crows who broke the long silence. From their agitated cries it was obvious they too knew something was terribly wrong. A few minutes later, the first aftershock hit, nearly knocking us off our feet again. I watched electric lines swing like jump ropes overhead as their poles swayed. A fear, animal and true, rose in my gut. And what we were feeling down there in Tokyo was but a fraction of what they were experiencing closer to the epicenter up north.

When the aftershock passed, we turned on the television. The emergency broadcast showed the outline of Japan, with the entire Pacific coast pulsing in red. A tsunami was coming. Evacuate immediately. Stay away from coastlines. Evacuate immediately. 

But there was almost no time for those in coastal communities to react. 22,192 men and women, young and elderly, who had woken up thinking it was just another spring day, lost their lives in a matter of minutes.

But what we didn’t know at the moment, lost in grief as we helplessly watched the horrors up north unfold, was that those same surging waters had wiped out the cooling system of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power facility, a series of four reactors located on the Pacific coast. The government evacuated residents, then instituted an exclusion zone 20 kilometers around the reactor. Within 24 hours, the cores would melt down. Workers braved high levels of radiation in a desperate attempt to cool the reactors with water pumped in from the sea. Unit 1 was the first to explode. Units 3 and 4 followed over the next two days. A plume of radioactive fallout drifted over a vast swath of Japan’s countryside. This was another tragedy atop the devastating natural disaster—one entirely man-made.

In the months and years afterward, the evacuation era was re-defined to specifically cover the most contaminated towns, and euphemistically renamed the “Difficult-to-return Zone.” It follows the rough footprint of the plume carried by wind from the reactors after the meltdown, roughly 340 square kilometers, half the size of the Chicago metropolitan area. For years, special permits were required for entry. In 2017, the government reopened Route 114, the national highway cutting across the Zone, to traffic, but drivers must pass through quickly, without stopping. Every road off the highway is barricaded and guarded. As a result the villages and towns inside the Zone have been cut off to all but those on official business: mainly decontamination workers, and former residents given occasional, brief permits to check on their properties. Some 22,000 citizens remain domestic refugees to this day, unable to return to their homes in that forbidden place.

Ise is one of them.

“I was there when the earthquake hit,” Ise says after the prayer ceremony, gesturing in the direction of his former home just a few dozen meters downhill from the shrine. “The tsunami hit the coast, but we’re up in the mountains. I thought we were safe. Then men I’d never seen before came to the village. They were all wearing hazmat suits. None of them spoke to us, so none of us knew what was going on.”

Tsushima Inari Jinja shrine was the spiritual anchor for the village of Tsushima, which lays down the hillside. After World War II, its population swelled to more than 4,000 as veterans returned. But by the early 2000s this number had dwindled to just 1,400. Tsushima was a stereotypical small town in rural Japan, tight-knit and aged. Everyone knew one another. Most of them made a living through farming. Ise did, too, tending tobacco fields and rice paddies in addition to his duties at the shrine. The appearance of the hazmat-clad people in their midst came as a huge shock. They didn’t say what they were doing, so villagers could only try to piece together a picture of what was going on. The television was reporting on the explosions at the nuclear plants, but the official line was that the emissions posed no immediate danger to citizens. The hazmat suited interlopers suggested otherwise. Later, much later, the village would learn that those men in the suits were recording levels of nearly 60 microsieverts an hour—six hundred times the normal average background radiation. But none of this was spoken of at the time. Eventually the residents made the decision to evacuate themselves.

“We didn’t even pack,” Ise said. He is a soft-spoken man, but the anger begins to rise as he remembers. “We left with the clothes on our backs. We just assumed it’d be a few days in a disaster shelter and then back home. And now 11 years have passed. Eleven years, and still we can’t go home. It isn’t right.” We gaze down the hill at his house. He says the contents inside are exactly as they were on the day he and his family left, more than a decade ago.

Ise lives in the city of Fukushima today, about an hour west of Tsushima by car. He visits Tsushima Inari Jinja twice a month, along with two other shrines that are outside of the Zone. He sweeps out the dust and cobwebs, doing maintenance wherever needed, and then, once the sanctum has been prepared, puts on his robes and performs a Shinto prayer. 

Officially, Ise isn’t allowed back into Tsushima at all. The entrance to the village is closed off with a metal accordion barricade. Guards stand watch beside it. But the old priest was always determined to return to his birthright. By tradition, Shinto priesthoods are inherited. For 17 generations, some 800 years, Ise’s bloodline has watched over Tsushima Inari Jinja and ministered to the villagers. Ise isn’t allowed into his village, but he used his own money to hire a construction company to open a path through the woods off the main road into the shrine’s back entrance. This is neither officially recognized, nor is it prohibited. There is a strict separation between church and state in Japan, and perhaps because this is a shrine, the authorities have turned a blind eye to Ise’s efforts. So we entered the holy ground through a gray zone. 

It was a beautiful summer morning as we pulled up to the shrine gate. Ise’s son was behind the wheel, he was in the passenger seat, and I was in the back.

“They say that the radiation endangers all of our lives,” he said as we pulled up. “But the thing about radiation is, it’s invisible. It looks like any other day around here.”

It’s true. If you’d fallen asleep in Fukushima City and woken up here, in the middle of the forest, verdant and green, you’d think we were preparing for a hike. The morning sunshine was warm. Flowers were blooming and birdsong rang through the canopy above. It had rained the night before, and the air was pleasantly moist; I could even smell the loam through my mask, which I was wearing more out of courtesy to an elderly person during the pandemic than radiation concerns. But there was no forgetting the bilingual signs posted at the border to the Zone: Caution. High-dose radiation area. Pass through quickly. Do not stop. 

The highway running through the Zone has been decontaminated, to an extent, and so too the grounds of Tsushima Inari Shrine. The radiation readings here hover just under 1 microsievert per hour, about 10 times the levels outside of the Zone. Other spots in the village are much higher. Ichiro Suenaga, mayor-in-exile of Tsushima, told the Tokyo Shimbun in 2021 that he had recorded levels of 20 microsieverts an hour near his former residence— 80 times the amount specified by the government as requiring decontamination. The radioactive cloud that drifted over Tohoku after the explosions at Fukushima Daiichi 11 years ago wasn’t homogenous. It polluted indiscriminately but randomly. One spot might be relatively clean. Another, just steps away, could be dangerously high.

“I’d hate for it not to be here if, someday, people can finally return. It’s a small shrine, but it has a role. I have one too. Protecting it.”

Outside the shrine hangs a cloth banner, a little tattered by the elements, hand-lettered with red kanji calligraphy reading Fukko Kigan—“Prayers for Recovery.” But the thing that really catches my eye is the torii, the distinctive gate used to delineate the entrance to a shrine. It is missing its horizontal cross-bars. Ise says they fell during the original earthquake, one of the few visible signs of damage in his area. Now all that remains are a pair of unconnected stone columns. The sight of it shocked me almost as much as the signs at the border did. Shinto shrines can be large or small, opulent or humble, but they are always kept clean, the grounds always maintained. The unrepaired torii feels like a metaphor for just how wrong things have gone here.

“I was going to fix it,” Ise said, as if reading my mind. “But then the villagers stopped me. They said to leave it, as a reminder of what happened.” 

For centuries, the villagers of Tsushima gathered here to mingle and pray. The shrine hosted festivals to commemorate the planting of rice in spring and at harvest in fall. The residents would heft a mikoshi, a portable Shinto shrine, from Tsushima Inari Jinja into the streets of the village, chanting and dancing and consecrating the fields in hopes of another prosperous season. Then they would cap off the day with a party, drinking cups of saké rice wine, toasting each other and most importantly the kami, the Shinto gods of the natural world to whom Tsushima’s residents, and their ancestors before them back to time immemorial, believed they owed their harvest and happiness. 

All of that history ended in March 2011. There is no one to plant rice in Tsushima now. The fields are fallow and filled with weeds. The streets are empty. The houses and shops are shuttered. But the kami remain. And they always will. That’s why Ise keeps coming back. Both to pay his respects as a priest, and to remind the kami that the people haven’t forgotten them.

If you were to ask the average Japanese what their religion is, you’d have a hard time getting a straight answer. Surveys show that 70 to 80 percent of us claim no religious beliefs at all. Yet there are actually more Shinto shrines in our cities and countryside than there are of our celebrated convenience stores. 

Since prehistoric times, the inhabitants of the Japanese islands have believed that everything has a spirit. Plants. Animals. Natural phenomena. Even the very terrain itself, like the seas and rivers and mountains, even rocks, harbor spirits of their own. By respecting and venerating these spirits, humans positioned themselves as part of a greater natural order. This worldview is called animism, and it is the fundamental concept underpinning the traditional Japanese system of beliefs. Those spirits, known as kami, are avatars for every aspect of the natural world, and Shinto, written with words meaning “The Way of Kami,” is the method of interacting with them.

You’d be hard pressed to find a modern Japanese who literally believes that spirits lurk in every object surrounding them, but that ancient mindset subtly informs our worldview in much the way Judeo-Christian beliefs have molded thinking in the West, even if you don’t happen to be Jewish or Christian yourself. Particularly in big cities, most people don’t visit shrines every day or even regularly, yet huge numbers of us come out on special occasions. In the 72 hours after midnight on New Year’s Day 2019, for example, 100 million Japanese visited shrines and temples all over Japan. A hundred million out of a population of what was then a hundred and 26 million. And shrines have a special place in many smaller local neighborhoods and communities like Tsushima.

A great many Shinto rituals and festivals are related to agriculture. This makes sense because we were an agrarian economy up to the 20th century. It also makes sense because farming is, of course, working with nature, which means working with forces beyond human control, namely the weather. My impression of American farmers, at least in olden times, is one of rugged individualists on isolated homesteads. But rice farming is and always has been a group endeavor. It takes a village to make and maintain rice paddies, which in times of old had to be planted and picked entirely by hand, stalk by stalk. Farmers depended on the support of the kami, in the form of the things outside human control. For everything else, they depended on each other.

In Tsushima’s annual Taue-odori, literally “planting dance,” locals dressed in costumes evoking traditional farming outfits: colorful work kimono and straw hats and sandals. Then they would perform an interpretive dance representing the rice-cultivation process from planting to harvest. They held the festival at Tsushima Inari Jinja because it was an anchor for their community, but even more so because they weren’t dancing for themselves, or not only for themselves. They were dancing for the kami.

But the dances stopped in 2011.

“That’s the happiest thing in the world: a normal life. And it’s also the most difficult thing to achieve.”

The Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, as the natural aspect of the disaster on March 11, 2011 is officially known today, damaged or destroyed some 4,800 Shinto shrines in the Tohoku region. Today 243 remain within the borders of the Difficult-to-Return Zone, isolated from their parishioners in the outside world. In 2021, a construction firm built a new “combined shrine” in the town of Futaba, outside the Zone. It gives the parishioners of 50 shrines that were either wiped away by tsunami or contaminated by fallout a place to gather and practice their faith. Ise could have taken this path as well. He could have incorporated his shrine with another, or even chosen to rebuild outside of the Zone. I asked him why.

“Shrines are connected to people through the land,” Ise said. “We live on the land. Crops sprout from the land. Our ancestors are buried on the land. You can’t separate a shrine from the ground it stands on. And besides, I’d hate for it not to be here if, someday, people can finally return. It’s a small shrine, but it has a role. I have one too. Protecting it.”

*

As Ise packed up his robes after the ritual, he handed me an ofuda, a Shinto talisman. It was a folded sheet of white washi paper inscribed with calligraphy in Ise’s careful hand, reading “Tsushima Inari Jinja,” along with “Household Safety,” “Traffic Safety,” and “Safety from Illness.” Shinto shrines generally prepare and sell talismans just like this to visitors, but obviously, nobody can visit Tsushima Inari Jinja now. Every year, Ise prepares hundreds of these ofuda, consecrates them in a ritual at the shrine, and mails them to his former neighbors who have scattered across Japan. Sometimes, when he gets together with one of them, he’ll hear a lament that their hometown might eventually disappear from the map altogether. 

Ise’s talismans are an effort to fight the dying of that light. In the immediate years after the disaster, he’d mail around 1,000 every year. It started with about 1,000 mails. But the number decreases year by year. Some have moved on without updating their contact information. Many others have passed on from age. Last year, Ise mailed just six hundred talismans. But he says he plans to continue for as long as he can. Ise’s work is about maintaining a spiritual home for former residents, but so too does it provide a little light in the darkness, a hope that someday, somehow, things might return to normal.

“That’s the happiest thing in the world: a normal life,” Ise said. “And it’s also the most difficult thing to achieve.”

The disaster in Fukushima was, of course, a Japanese disaster. But Ise’s struggle to maintain a semblance of normalcy amid a catastrophe without end mirrors all of us, trying to do the same in modern times beset by pandemic and strife. We’re all struggling with the realization we can never go back “home” to the way things were before. Maybe Ise’s work hints that the way forward is paved by individual effort, no matter how small and isolated, little beacons in the darkness. 



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