NIHONMATSU, Japan - Shinichi Ouchi's family has farmed this land for at least 300 years and for 16 generations, he told us as we sat, legs crossed, on the floor of his parlor, where the walls are lined with black-and-white photos of his ancestors. Ouchi, 71, an organic farmer in the Fukushima prefecture town of Nihonmatsu, greeted us in the driveway of his modest home, where my interpreter, another journalist and I removed our shoes and then handed him a finely wrapped box of candies - our omiyage (a traditional Japanese gift offered to thank a host for his or her hospitality).
Ouchi chairs the Nihonmatsu Organic Agricultural Study Group, part of Yuuki-Net - the Fukushima Organic Agricultural Network, a group aimed at fostering collaboration and an exchange of sustainable practices among farmers in the region. Since the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident two years ago, Yuuki-Net farmers have lost 60 percent of their business, Ouchi told us. The accident, triggered by the one-two punch of an earthquake and tsunami in March 2011, devastated homes and displaced residents all along the coast in Fukushima. But in places like Nihonmatsu, about 40 miles from the crippled nuclear facility, the real destruction is less visible. Ouchi and his friends are more concerned with what lies beneath the soil and in the minds of their consumers.
"All the product from Fukushima cannot be sold - the people don't buy them, so the biggest difficulty is...the rumors."
"All the product from Fukushima cannot be sold - the people don't buy them so the biggest difficulty is the damage by the rumors...Even though the radiation level is very low, but the still the products are not sold," Ouchi said, explaining that most people just shudder at the word Fukushima and discriminate accordingly.
"Even though I explain the actual numbers, they don't even care or listen to me," Ouchi told us, detailing some of his difficult interactions with customers since the accident. "People who left us don't care how low is the radiation - they just don't want to eat the vegetables or the rice from Fukushima."
Ouchi, a short man with gray hair and wrinkles on his forehead, joined the family farming business when he was 18 years old. His hands show the wear and tear of manual labor on the 12 acres of farmland that surround his home, where he grows more than 50 kinds of vegetables and other organic products. Ouchi wakes between 4 or 6 in the morning, depending on the season, in order to work his land and bring his produce to the local cooperative shop. He works "until it gets dark in the afternoon," he said, but sometimes, he finds the time to "take a rest" during the day.
Two years ago, when the Great East Japan Earthquake shook the region, Ouchi had never felt a "such a strong shake" in his life. But he knew that his land, which sits atop solid bedrock, is firm and can withstand the shake. What he didn't know was that the subsequent meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility would shake the foundation of his livelihood.
"If this nuclear plant accident didn't happen, then this area was really safe," Ouchi said. And he isn't alone. The Fukushima region is known for its agricultural and fishery industries. The prefecture has the fourth largest farmland area in Japan and many of Japan's agricultural products, including rice, are grown there due to the favorable climate. The region is among the country's top producers of tomatoes, cucumbers, apples, and pears. But since the accident in March 2011, almost 100,000 farmers in Fukushima have lost 105 billion yen, according to a Bloomberg report. Much of that lost revenue comes from false rumors, lingering radiation fears and discrimination against Fukushima products, but the accident has also forced the region's agricultural community to adopt new farming practices and regularly check radiation levels. Ouchi checks all of his own produce and explained that the prefecture and a local research institute check radiation levels regularly as well. The agriculture association checks all the rice, package by package, Ouchi added.