In a Japanese village ravaged by tsunami and nuclear disaster, two farmers grow indigo to rebuild community and heal
For one of these farmers, growing and dyeing indigo has become a tool for fighting unfounded rumours that products from Fukushima are still contaminated.
Minamisoma: Because of radiation released by the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster a decade ago, farmers in nearby Minamisoma weren’t allowed to grow crops for two years.
After the restriction was lifted, two farmers, Kiyoko Mori and Yoshiko Ogura, found an unusual way to rebuild their lives and help their destroyed community. They planted indigo and soon began dying fabric with dye produced from the plants.
“Dyeing lets us forget the bad things” for a while, Mori said. “It’s a process of healing for us.”
The massive earthquake and tsunami on 11 March, 2011, caused three of the reactors at the nuclear plant to melt and wrecked more than just the farmers’ livelihoods. The homes of many people in Minamisoma, about 20 kilometers from the plant, were destroyed by the tsunami. The disaster killed 636 town residents, and tens of thousands of others left to start new lives.
Mori and Ogura believed that indigo dyeing could help people in the area recover. Mori said they were concerned at first about consuming locally grown food, but felt safe raising indigo because it wouldn’t be eaten. They checked the radiation level of the indigo leaves and found no dangerous amount.
Ten years after the disaster, Mori and Ogura are still engaged in indigo dyeing but have different missions.
To Mori, it has become a tool for building a strong community in a devastated town and for fighting unfounded rumours that products from Fukushima are still contaminated. She favours the typical indigo dyeing process that requires some chemical additives.
But Ogura has chosen to follow a traditional technique that uses fermentation instead as a way to send a message against dangers of modern technology highlighted by nuclear power.
Mori formed a group called Japan Blue which holds workshops that have taught indigo dyeing to more than 100 people each year. She hopes the project will help rebuild the dwindling town’s sense of community.
Despite a new magnitude 7.3 earthquake that recently hit the area, the group did not cancel its annual exhibition at a community center that served as an evacuation center 10 years ago. “Every member came to the exhibition, saying they can clean up the debris in their houses later,” Mori said.
Ogura, who is not a member of the group, feels that a natural process is important because the nuclear accident showed that relying on advanced technology for efficiency while ignoring its negative aspects can lead to bad consequences. “I really suffered during the nuclear accident,” Ogura said. “We escaped frantically in the confusion. I felt I was doing something similar again” by using chemicals.
“We seek too much in the way of many varieties of beautiful colours created with the use of chemicals. We once thought our lives were enriched by it, but I started feeling that wasn’t the case,” she said. “I want people to know what the real natural colour looks like.”
Organic indigo dyes take more time and closer attention. Ogura first ferments chopped indigo leaves with water for a month and then mixes the result with lye which is formed on the surface of a mixture of hot water and ashes. It has to be kept at about 20 degrees C and stirred three times a day. Part of the beauty of the process, Ogura says, is that it’s hard to predict what color will be produced.
With the support of city officials, Ogura started making silk face masks dyed with organic indigo. She used to run an organic restaurant where she served her own vegetables before the disaster, but now runs a guesthouse with her husband in which visitors can try organic indigo dyeing.
Just 700 meters from Ogura’s house, countless black bags filled with weakly contaminated debris and soil are piled along the roadside. They have been there since after the disaster, according to Ogura’s husband, Ryuichi. Other piles are scattered around the town.
“The government says it’s not harmful to leave them there. But if they really think it’s not harmful, they should take them to Tokyo and keep them near them,” he said.
The radiation waste stored in the town is scheduled to be moved to a medium-term storage facility by March next year, a town official said.
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