Nurturing Uncertainty: How Recuperation Retreats Foster Care Communities in Post-Meltdown Japan

Jieun Cho
4 April 2024

Recuperation retreats that have emerged following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan stand as a powerful example of how experimental practices of care foster transformative communities in the midst of enduring uncertainty.

On a sunny summer day in 2018, forty children and twenty parents from Fukushima, gathered at an old school building for a five-day retreat organized by Twinkle Retreat, a group of mothers of disabled children from Tokyo. The day began with volunteers hurriedly serving meals under the warm sun—grilled fish, miso soup, potato salad, pickled radish, and rice balls made from ingredients from West Japan. After finishing their meals, the children excitedly darted out with their swimming suits and fishing nets for a day-long adventure in the stream. Mita-san, an experienced volunteer in her fifties, hollered my name, and I was soon tasked with looking after Riku, a shy four-year-old from Iwaki City on his first retreat. Like many other children who were raised in areas affected by the fallout, Riku had never dipped a toe in the water. This is why his parents brought him to the retreat: to enjoy carefree moments in nature, away from their risk-laden home environments.

On March 11, 2011, a magnitude-9 earthquake triggered a tsunami and meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in northeastern Japan, resulting in a wide-scale dispersal of radioactive materials in East Japan. In response to the fallout, the Japanese government loosened radiological protection standards by allowing twenty times higher levels of airborne risk in disaster-affected areas. Such move was justified as necessary for minimizing social costs of post-disaster recovery, leaving the management of uncertain risks of radiation to individuals. When children are known to be the biologically most vulnerable population to long-term exposure due to their faster cell division, many child-raising families in Fukushima have been forced into a situation where they must navigate the uncertainties of radiation.

Hoyō (保養, “recuperation”) retreats emerged under such circumstances as a civic initiative to provide a sanctuary for children like Riku. They take inspiration from post-Chernobyl Ukraine and Belarus where children living in contaminated areas were regularly sent off to state-funded rehabilitation facilities in less riskier areas. Recuperation, in this context, provides a futuristic form of collective reparation by alleviating the harm caused by the nuclear disaster on children’s growing bodies, which is embedded within national imaginaries of the body politic. In Japan, in the absence of the government’s long-term support for at-risk children, recuperation has been taken up largely by grassroots efforts, especially female volunteers who are non-locals of Fukushima and in their 40s through 70s—like Mita-san.

Initially prompted as an emergency response to compensate for the insufficiency of the state’s disaster response, the retreats outlasted the crisis momentum despite the decline in public interest and donations, morphing into something more than an escapism. Typically taking the form of outdoor camping programs, these retreats aim to foster enduring effects of “relaxation,” “detox,” and “refreshment” in the bodies of Fukushima children, by providing them “nature experience” outside their irradiated home environments. According to a 2016 survey, over 9,000 children were annually being brought out of Fukushima through these retreats.

Between 2017 and 2019, I participated in 23 retreats as an on-site volunteer staff and attended general discussions on hoyō in volunteers’ gatherings, public lectures, the Congress Members’ Building, and media reports. While hoyō was constantly discussed in terms of its political or medical efficacy—whether it can be institutionalized as a policy or treatment regime—I found that this is not entirely how the participants themselves understood the value of retreats. In fact, such efficacy-focused evaluation of hoyō could underestimate the very uncertainty that drives people to organize and come to retreats. Based on these observations, my research—which broadly studies the relationships between care, uncertainty, and politics by foregrounding child-raising families from Fukushima—examines hoyō as a powerful example of socioecological care that creatively navigates the prolonged uncertainties of nuclear risk.

Borantia Worlds

In 2019, I was at a citizens’ volunteer center to attend a networking event of hoyō organizers from the Tokyo Metropolitan Area. A woman in her seventies, Iwamoto-san, stood up to introduce herself:

Good afternoon, everyone, I am Iwamoto Chizuru. I am a resident of Suginami District, and I have been working as a borantia since the nuclear disaster. Before retirement, I had worked as a teacher for a long time. I do not have any personal connection to Fukushima. I’m embarrassed to say this, but I had never thought about nuclear reactors or visited Tōhoku [northeastern Japan] before the disaster. But, when the disaster happened, I couldn’t sleep at the thought of children living there. I wanted to do something for them. Then I attended an event about the Chernobyl disaster and learned about hoyō, that there were people in Japan who have been doing this for Chernobyl children since the 1990s. ‘This is something I can do,’ I thought. My group has been hosting retreats every summer since 2012. I encountered many children and their parents for the past eight years, which opened my eyes to something. […] As we all know, nothing seems to have resolved since the disaster. The government continues to deny the reality, and families in Fukushima need our help. I am glad to meet you all today, and I look forward to learning from your experiences. Thank you.

The hoyō volunteers I’ve met had backgrounds that were as diverse as the locations they hosted their own style of retreats. For example, the seven groups that organized the retreats I participated in were: an environmental NGO, an elderly couple of retirees, a group of local mother-friends (mamatomo), parents of disabled children, alternative medicine practitioners, and so on. Despite this heterogeneity, they also had striking commonalities in ways that resonate with Iwamoto-san’s self-introduction; they all employed the category of borantia (“volunteer”) to explain their commitment to hoyō; women took the major leadership in actually running and resourcing retreats (by drawing on personal connections, informal donations, bazaar events, and tourist resources); and all of these women had spent decades in some kind of paid or unpaid care work—as a housewife, a neighborhood watch, or care professionals at schools, care homes, and small businesses.

These people invariably described the nuclear disaster as a wake-up call in their late adulthood, a calling to help “Fukushima children” whose predicament reflected the unresolved injustices of Japanese society. And it is through the category of borantia that they were grappling with their place in post-fallout Japan. This is intriguing given that the origin of volunteer subjectivity in Japan is commonly traced back to the 1970s, when the state actively pursued to improve security, hygiene, and morale in then rapidly expanding suburban neighborhoods by enlisting the labor of residents themselves, especially housewives. Borantia in this sense indexes a form of historical subjectivity whose voluntary labor was co-opted by the state to further its own agenda.

However, voluntary work doesn’t necessarily always comply with state agendas. Hoyō organizers like Iwamoto-san (and many others), in fact, repurposed the category of borantia as a public identity to contest the government’s stance on nuclear contamination and exposure, by promoting “recuperation” as a need that demands public responses. Such advocate claims sparked discussions across different venues during my research. Some people—not necessarily the practitioners of hoyō themselves—were concerned that acknowledging recuperation as a public need maycontradict the government’s endorsement of scientifically “tolerable” risk.

That said, in practice, performing borantia subjectivity concerned less the state-society collaboration, but more pragmatic questions of how to build face-to-face relationships with families from Fukushima—to work across differences. At both retreats and promotional events inside Fukushima, the organizers carefully positioned themselves as borantia. This helped to clear the ground and frame the retreats as a quasi-public sphere of social care where local families and non-local volunteers could collaborate for the sake of children as equals despite actual differences in their experiences of and perspectives towards the nuclear disaster. When the need for recuperation remains contested in local politics as well, albeit for different reasons (due to concerns over its potential impact on regional reconstruction), these new ways of composing relations create a space for families to navigate everyday uncertainties through coalitional efforts at recuperation while avoiding stigmatization or isolation in their communities.

Embodied Togetherness

Recuperation retreats provide Fukushima children with opportunities to interact with nature outside their home environments. Simply called “nature experience” (shizen taiken), these encounters often lead to positive changes in children both physically and socially. On a typical retreat, we would venture out in the morning for a hike in a nearby forest. Some days we went on picnics in a park, and other days we had water fights, hunted for dragonflies, or made soap bubbles. These seemingly mundane interactions, or “contact” (fureai), with the environment were felt as extraordinary moments for parents and children alike because many of them had experienced intensive anxiety towards their home environments.

A ten-year-old girl I met suffered from anorexia and began to eat better after going to retreats for over a year. Her mother—who was struggling with a sense of guilt towards her daughter’s situation—said that eating with many different people at many different places might have helped the daughter to overcome the fear and to see how eating could be an “enjoyable” (tanoshii) experience. Stories about children who had never touched the water, soil, and trees outside the home were as common on retreats as stories about them having changed through repeated efforts for recuperation.

Although the retreats were meant for nurturing children, they also fostered connections among other participants. While sharing meals, rooms, and activities for days and weeks, people got to know each other more intimately, albeit for a few days or weeks, and learned about each other’s struggles in their respective neighborhoods. In this ritual-like setting, even mundane chores had the potential to be rediscovered as a source of being with others.

For example, doing laundry together was a topic of frequent conversations for mothers, which often bound people in unexpected ways. It is customary in Japan to dry laundry outside in the sunlight, but many mothers stopped doing this after the disaster. On one retreat, we—four volunteers including myself—invited ten families. Each day, thirty children left a pile of dirty laundries on the floor after hiking, swimming, and running outside. We lamented and marveled at the “mountains of laundry” (yama no yō ni) they created and the seemingly endless energies of the children. For some mothers, washing and drying the laundry outside together brought a sense of joy that they had long forgotten. As one mother told me, it also gave her a sense of relief (hotto suru) that, in her words, “I am not alone, and I wasn’t wrong” (watshi dake janain da machigatte nakattan da).

Sheltered together for days (or weeks, though this was rare), people shared everyday rituals such as eating, cleaning, cooking, and playing. This often blurred the boundaries between the participants, and on some occasions, people developed ways to notice each other’s specific needs through gestures. To extend the laundry example, parents, volunteers, and children all participated in the end in maintaining the clothesline open for someone, given the limitations of the sunny hours and the yard space people could use. When rainy clouds appeared, someone would always bring in a forgotten shirt or pillow cover from outside. Over meals, people often asked around who had taken care of their unattended clothes and made sure to thank them. People began to work beyond their roles as the host or the guest, redefining who is supposed to care for whom in different situations. Through such moments, retreats catalyzed diverse forms of embodied togetherness among participants, which constituted their effectiveness as a healing and caring practice for both children and adults.

Creating Community out of Crisis

When everyday life swiftly “went back to normal” in schools, workplaces, and neighborhoods in Fukushima, many child-raising families had to cope with their children’s biological vulnerability as if it were a private matter. Recuperation retreats attempt to respond to this distinct need of child-raising families living with and against radiation in Fukushima by providing temporary respite for their children. While attending hoyō retreats and observing relevant discussions, I felt the need to provide accounts for how the healing-in-nature experience of children is driven not only by the presumed cleanliness of a non-irradiated elsewhere, but also by the voluntary care work of predominantly female borantias.

These women, motivated by their cultural logics of care and their sense of responsibility towards future generations, step in to fill the gaps left by the insufficient support from the Japanese government in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. By claiming their volunteer work as socially necessary and meaningful, they challenge the patriarchal notion that care work is a private, domestic matter and demonstrate its vital importance in reconfiguring the public sphere for a more inclusive vision of post-disaster recovery.

The nature of this voluntary care work is both social and ecological; to make hoyō work, the women assemble a range of skills, resources, knowledge, and connections to create one retreat at a time while negotiating political and historical dynamics across contested landscapes inside and outside Fukushima. In doing so, they simultaneously refuse the prevalent pro- and anti-nuclear binaries as privileged categories for political action. On retreats, this socioecological care is coordinated as “nature experience”— which is co-created and enjoyed by volunteers, parents, and children across distinctive natural environments. Hoyō, as a form of praxis, acknowledges that not everyone can simply relocate upon the revelation of contamination, and also, that mobility is more than an individual’s choice. The value of “recuperation” lies not only in nurturing children’s biologies but also in fostering a sociable kind of future that can be livable despite its irradiatedness. In this sense, it also entails a hint of what social justice might look like in theory and in action in the aftermath of the fallout.

Image taken by the author

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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