FUKUSHIMA: It has been nine years since an earthquake triggered the release of radioactive contamination from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plants here – but local farmers are still reeling from the disaster.
Many are also still dependent on government handouts and subsidies following the worst nuclear disaster in history.
But several, like Atsushi Sato, have chosen to battle on their own – and in the process, have become the pride of the local community.
Sato, 47, is a 15th generation farmer who has turned to alternative crops like strawberries and leafy vegetables to stay afloat in business.
"After the nuclear disaster, I and my fellow 20 farmers in the Fukushima Prefecture decided to look at alternative activities to keep us, our families and workers going.
"Once the surrounding area was declared safe, we had several discussions with the agricultural and local government authorities on our future and the next course of action.
"That is when we were recommended to try our hand at crops that were more resistant to possible radioactive contamination, like strawberries and leak, and we have not looked back since," said Sato, whose 0.35ha Strawberry Paradise farm and that of fellow farmers have been bearing fruit since 2015.
The uniqueness of Sato's farm is that it offers visitors an unlimited opportunity to personally pick any of seven varieties of strawberries for complimentary consumption on site.
They can then purchase packed fresh strawberries, as well as their by-products, like jam, syrup, juice, ice-cream, dried chips and the like.
"I thought of this novel idea in order to give confidence to my customers on the safety of consuming the succulent strawberries, which have been screened by the authorities to ensure that they are not contaminated in any way by radiation.
"Additionally, it is a good marketing tool, to boost sales for farmers in the strawberry industry here which has become a huge tourist attraction," he said, adding that wooden hives were made available for non-stinging bees to pollinate the flowers.
Sato added that strawberries are easy to cultivate in green houses and an ideal crop during the December to February winter period, when other vegetables do not thrive.
"We farmers are confident that in due course, through our perseverance, our livelihood will return to normalcy once public perception has caught on that the region poses no threat for the consumption of locally cultivated crops and vegetables," said Sato, adding that his farm attracts about 15,000 visitors a month.
To further demonstrate Fukushima's safe environment, the Japanese government will start the 2020 Tokyo Olympics torch relay from the Fukushima football stadium on March 26.
Fukushima has also been chosen as a Games venue with the first sports event of women's softball held at the Azuma Stadium in the prefecture.
On his farming technique, Sato said that he utilised fresh mountain water and specially formulated organic fertilisers for the strawberries.
He admitted that strawberry farming has unexpectedly turned lucrative, garnering 15 million yen a year.
It has now become a year-round business, offering job opportunities to local sons and daughters, thus reviving Fukushima's sagging economy.
Sato intends to take the business a step further by utilising more technology and machinery, thanks to a 50 million yen compensation from the nuclear plant company.
Fukushima was jolted on March 11, 2011 by a huge earthquake that caused the cooling of the reactors and spent fuel pools of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plants to fail.
The release of radioactive material occurred through pressure relief, uncontrolled release of radioactive steam, fires, explosions and leakage and seepage of hundreds of thousands of litres of contaminated water.