It’s been 17 months since the catastrophic March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami touched off a series of powerful explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station in Japan. And for Yoh Kawano — a UCLA staffer who recently returned from the evacuated nuclear zone as part of a partnership between UCLA and Niigata University — visiting the affected area was like being in a time capsule.
“It’s like time stops,” said Kawano, who chronicled his July 17-18 trip in a fascinating blog. “Unlike Sendai, where there were a lot of trucks and reconstruction efforts happening, there was no rebuilding happening in this zone. It’s a lock-down zone. So it’s like the earthquake happened, the tsunami waves happened — and it’s left as is.”
Kawano, who works as the geographic information systems (GIS) coordinator for UCLA’s Institute for Digital Research and Education (IDRE), was part of a four-man team that ventured last month into the evacuated areas surrounding the Fukushima plant. The team — named "Bishamon" after one of the Japanese seven gods of fortune — included a nuclear physicist and two medical doctors who are faculty members from Niigata University. They measured radiation levels in the nuclear zone with the help of a hybrid device created by Niigata University’s Radioisotope Center.
The device, consisting of a real-time GPS receiver, a radiation monitor and a laptop, runs on a web framework developed by Kawano and his UCLA colleague, David Shepard. When mounted on a tray and loaded into a vehicle, the device’s monitoring application records radiation levels while the laptop produces real-time charts and maps. It can also be carried manually into areas where cars can’t go.
“We want to provide this information and this technology to the local governments so that they can conduct the measurements themselves,” Kawano said. “The whole purpose is that, hopefully, if you measure for radiation, then you know where the hot spots are, and you prioritize decontamination efforts. It helps them say, ‘OK, we need to focus on this area.’ They clean it up, and then they measure again. When the radiation levels are at a safe level, they can direct their community to either live there or go back to their lives [as they were].”
Bishamon is not Kawano’s first volunteer affiliation with Japan; after the earthquake last year, Kawano served as lead GIS technologist for a volunteer organization called Crisis Commons. At the same time, he was conducting his own research on the impact social media had on the earthquake; specifically, how Twitter was used as a virtual bulletin board for disaster coordination.
In May 2011, as Kawano was presenting this research at Harvard University, he met Yugo Shobugawa, a medical doctor/researcher from Niigata University who was a visiting professor at Harvard at the time. The two became friends and formed the UCLA/Niigata University partnership soon afterward.
The earthquake in Japan struck a chord for both Kawano and Shobugawa, who was not in his home country when it happened. Kawano was born in Osaka, although he had not lived in Japan for any extensive amount of time. His father’s job as an agricultural researcher for an international agency caused the family to move often, and Kawano grew up mostly in Peru, Colombia and Thailand.
Kawano received his bachelor’s degree from the International Christian University in Tokyo and spent a year working in Japan in advertising, but shortly afterward came to UCLA and earned his master’s degree in urban planning. He worked for 10 years as IT director for Neighborhood Knowledge, a research center in the Luskin School of Public Affairs, before taking his current position as GIS coordinator for IDRE.
The partnership with Niigata University will probably be a lifelong project, Kawano said. “Radiation isn’t something that’s going to go away just because you clean it up. It stays, and you have to continue to monitor it,” he said. “That’s one thing about this team — we all know we’re in it for the long haul.”
Some of the zones have been opened permanently, and others only for short periods of time so that residents could visit their homes but not stay there, he added. “We think that some areas will never be opened. I don’t know what ‘never’ means, but it probably means a generation because there are some really, really high levels in some of these areas, and it’s way too dangerous.”
His visit to the Fukushima plant will be forever etched in his memory. “The trip inside the zone — it’s hard to describe. It’s a combination of just total heartbreak and ... in a sense, you’re kind of immune to it all while you’re doing it, because you have a mission on hand,” he said.
But in retrospect, he admitted that it was tough to stop and think about what they were doing. At one point, he and his colleagues were measuring radiation levels at a beach when they noticed some workers in white suits in the distance. They asked the city officials what the workers were doing.
“And the city officials said, ‘They’re still looking for bodies,’ ” Kawano said. “This is a year-and-a-half afterwards. I think for that community, there were 11 residents who had not been accounted for. So it’s a daily thing. They’re still looking for bodies. I couldn’t believe it. That just kind of marked the whole ... oh, wow ...,” he said, trailing off.