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Fukushima: Trouble in Mushi Mushi Land via Aljazeera

Japan’s beetle kingdom tries to recover from the nuclear disaster

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Mushi Mushi Land is no Mount Fuji. It never drew a fraction of the tourists popular Fukushima destinations like Aizu-Wakamatsu, known as Samurai City, once did. But the tableau here is emblematic of what’s happened all over Fukushima prefecture, as tourist destinations struggle to entice visitors back. At the amusement park, barricade tape now blocks off the bumblebee seesaw, the rusting butterfly rollercoaster and the cars shaped like rhinoceros beetles. The park sits outside the mandatory evacuation zone, but it did not emerge unscathed. Thousands of pounds of irradiated soil scraped from the premises sit under a black tarp along the road, awaiting permanent disposal.

After the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, the Miyakoji district — the portion of Tamura closest to the plant — was within the mandatory evacuation zone. (The advisory was lifted last April, making it the first place in Fukushima where evacuees were allowed to return home.) Radiation readings were high in other areas of Tamura as well, exceeding the Japanese government’s target ambient radiation level of 0.23 microsieverts per hour. Decontaminating Mushi Mushi Land was not high on the local government’s priority list. So Yoshida and other employees, along with many volunteers, did it themselves. Yoshida says they removed about two inches of soil and leaf litter from any areas where children might play. They scraped moss off tree roots, removed bark and trimmed portions of trees with high radiation readings. A 65-foot radius of forest surrounding the beetle petting zoo was scraped clean.

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The beetle petting zoo — which has reopened, though the amusement park has not — drew just 9,800 visitors last year, nearly all from Fukushima prefecture. Mushi Mushi Land once paid local farmers 30 yen — about 30 cents — per beetle larva and bought as many as 70,000 a year. Eleventh-generation farmer Yoshiteru Watanabe took in about $300 a year from the larvae. “My mother collected them and packed them and brought them to the company,” he says. “It was pocket money. But she was very happy.”

Collecting the fallen leaves where beetles like to lay their eggs is now forbidden because the forests have not been decontaminated. Local farmers must use commercial compost (beetles not included). Mushi Mushi Land now buys beetle larvae from mushroom farmers in Nihonmatsu, a city to the northwest. “These are large-scale farms. Just one farmer can give us 7,000 or 8,000 larvae,” Yoshida says. “But our original intention, to benefit Tamura, is over.”

Beetle larvae are the least of Fukushima farmers’ problems. The prefecture was once known for its rice, produce and seafood. More than three years after the disaster, some nations still ban the import of products from Fukushima and many Japanese remain wary of purchasing food produced in the prefecture.

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Reports from both the World Health Organization and the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation support the prefecture’s safety claims. They conclude that any radiation-induced effects of the 2011 accident on residents of Fukushima outside the most contaminated areas would be too small to identify. (By these standards, visitors run hardly any risk at all.)

But little is known about the health effects of long-term exposure to low levels of radiation. And a few worrisome patterns have emerged. Doctors in Fukushima have found higher than normal rates of thyroid cancer in children. (Skeptics say this is simply the result of better monitoring.) And several studies on wild animals in Fukushima — including birds, butterflies and monkeys — suggest that radiation is already having significant impacts on some species.

Some people feel that the government’s radiation measurements themselves are inadequate. Safecast — a nonprofit formed after the Fukushima Daiichi accident for the purpose of gathering more detailed radiation data — uses crowdsourcing to fill the gaps. “Radiation levels can fluctuate in very short distances, so that simply crossing a street can sometimes yield dramatically different readings,” notes Safecast’s website. By arming hundreds of citizens with radiation-reading devices, Safecast has created a much more detailed map of radiation dispersal from the Fukushima Daiichi plant.

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