Dateline gets an insider's view of life after Japan's disasters, with families facing ruin and fallout still being felt across the country.
It is five months since Japan's devastating earthquake and tsunami and millions of survivors are still struggling to recover. You may recall that just after the disaster occurred, Dateline sent Toshi Maeda from his home in Tokyo to report on his nation in crisis. Toshi has been on the road again and found that radiation levels are still dangerously high, forcing families into a terrible dilemma.
REPORTER: Toshi Maeda
This was the terrible day that changed Japan forever. It was 5 months ago, but I've lost sense of time and sometimes it feels like just yesterday. Like so many others, the shockwaves have had a big impact on my family.
GOLDA, TOSHI'S WIFE (Translation): I think that I'm done with Japan. I can't do any more here. There could be an earthquake any time. The situation isn't good.
I'm taking a train from Tokyo north to Fukushima. I want to see for myself what it's like near the site of March's nuclear catastrophe. As I get closer to the nuclear plant, it gets eerily quiet.
A lot of local shops are still closed or out of business, soon after I come to the end of the road.
REPORTER (Translation): Who can go in?
POLICE (Translation): You need an entry permit
Right now, I'm at a police control of the Fukushima nuclear exclusion zone. They say, unless you are an authorised nuclear worker or reconstruction worker or property owner in this area, nobody is allowed to go beyond this border any longer.
Instead, I head to the town of Minami Soma on the edge of the exclusion zone, at the hospital there, I find locals being tested for radiation in a mobile van. Outside in the waiting room, I meet the Sakuuchi family, who are next in line. Hikaru Sakuuchi and his son both worked at the Fukushima plant before the quake.
HIKARU SAKUUCHI (Translation): After the earthquake, we'd expected to be able to return in about a week - but no, not at all.
MRS YASUKO SAKUUCHI (Translation): There doesn't seem to be any joy left for us in life.
REPORTER (Translation): No job, no work, no food.
MRS YASUKO SAKUUCHI (Translation): There's no food. We stay at home, but there's no work.
Hikaru's son has had to transfer to another city for work, leaving his wife and child behind. One by one, the remaining family members are tested. It's an anxious time.
REPORTER (Translation): How did you go?
HIKARU SAKUUCHI (Translation): I'm only hoping there's nothing wrong with me.
Eventually, the family is called in to get their results.
DOCTOR (Translation): No one's affected by radiation.
MRS SAKUUCHI (Translation): Is that so? I'm so glad to hear it.
DOCTOR (Translation): I just noticed, the potassium measurements may not be very accurate. As far as the data goes, there's no sign of it.
MRS SAKUUCHI (Translation): I see.
DOCTOR (Translation): You all feel fine, right?
MRS SAKUUCHI (Translation): Yes, we feel fine. So it means we can continue to live our normal lives.
DOCTOR (Translation): And your granddaughter?
MRS SAKUUCHI (Translation): She; we're thinking of sending her to Iwaki.
DOCTOR (Translation): Good idea. That solves the problems.
The Sakuuchi's granddaughter, 4 year old Honoka, is too young to be tested for radiation. But the family is worried about the amount she might be absorbing.
HIKARU SAKUUCHI (Translation): This is from the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan. They measured the radiation outside our front room. At that time it was 1.6 and 1.4. The doctor told us to divide the figure by two and calculate the amount of indoor radiation exposure over a year. That's why we'd better evacuate our child.
These are dangerous levels of radiation, 14 times the norm and there is no easy solution for the family. Honoka's mum can't leave her job and her dad has already been transferred elsewhere for work.
REPORTER (Translation): It's hard for you.
HONOKA'S MUM (Translation): It is hard. We've never lived apart from each other. It's the first time.
MRS YASUKO SAKUUCHI (Translation): Our family gets separated. Even a family of three or five has to be separated. The nuclear power plant; If it weren't for that, our family would be together. Really, it's something that you can't see. That's the most frightening part.
Like many people, the Sakuuchis are frustrated with the government's handling of the crisis.
MRS SAKUUCHI (Translation): My family house is in Iitate. We learned it was very contaminated only some months after the incident. During that time, I frequently visited my family there. From today's newspaper, I realise that I was there when the radiation levels were very high. I'm sure they knew it much earlier, yet they didn't tell us. They should have given us information so we could understand. We can't change what happened but what to do about it is a different matter. When I think about it;What do they take us for? It really makes my blood boil.
This crisis is the first time I've seen people get so angry about the opaque nature of our government. It seems nothing in Japan is quite the same as before; not even the tea.
The famous tea fields of Shizuoka produce almost half of Japan's green tea crop. They lie southwest of Tokyo, 350 kilometres from Fukushima, but not far enough.
Masaru Masuda is justifiably proud of his region's harvest, known as the finest in Japan.
MASARU MASUDA (Translation): This is the second pick and this is the first.
Masuda-san was shocked when tea from this region was found to be toxic.
MASARU MASUDA (Translation): The tea from this town has been found to contain about 270;about 270Bq /kg, so I'm told.
REPORTER (Translation): What is the normal level?
MASARU MASUDA (Translation): Normally, no radiation is found. So, perhaps 1000 times normal level, I think.
As a result, some farmers lost millions of yen worth of their harvest. So far Masuda-san has been able to ship most of his crop, but he's still worried.
MASARU MASUDA (Translation): We're in what they call a 'hot spot'. Rather than the distance from the reactor, it's the wind, weather and geography that affect the level. If you're in a valley or if it rains, these are 'hot spots'. It's also true, to be blunt, with the body. The 'hot spots' in the body will be an issue soon.
Not far from the tea fields on the Shizuoka coast is a disaster waiting to be repeated. The Hamaoka nuclear power plant.
POLICE (Translation): No, I'm sorry.
REPORTER (Translation): Can't I film?
POLICE (Translation): No.
It's been called the most dangerous nuclear plant in the world. And even though I've come on an approved visit, the employees are very sensitive about what I film.
POLICE (Translation): Excuse me. Please don't film while we are moving.
This plant can produce 3,500 megawatts of electricity and powers one of Japan's key industrial areas. But in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, the government ordered the owners to shut it down.
KANJI NISHIDA (Translation): It was in operation till 14 May. It's stopped, but its state is similar to when it was running.
Kanji Nishida is the PR manager for the plant.
KANJI NISHIDA (Translation): This reactor contains 872 fuel assemblies. It needs to be kept cool, so as you saw in the central control room, water pumps circulate water for cooling.
The plant has a similar design to the Fukushima plant, and the same vulnerabilities. From its windows, you can see the ocean waves rolling in.
KANJI NISHIDA (Translation): Due to the recent incident in the space between those trees and the road, we are planning to build a levee over 12 meters high.
For years, the operators insisted the plant would safely survive any earthquake and tsunami, but they don't any more.
KANJI NISHIDA (Translation): The last quake, they say, was Magnitude 9. We don't know if a quake of that scale would hit this area, but we base our plan on that model for calculating the height of tsunamis and using this data we'll determine the height of the levee and the strength needed to incorporate in the design. We'll build it on this side of the sand dune and about 1.5km long.
Nishida-san is keen to show me a presentation about their new plans to fend off a tsunami. The plant is expected to remain idle for 2 years, while the new defences are built, and then it will be restarted. Not everyone's convinced the plans go far enough.
EIICHI NAGANO (Translation): This is where they are supposed to build the levee;they may build it, but I don't think it will do any good. That's what we think. We're not demanding alterations, but total closure of the plant.
Eiichi Nagano is 90 years old and a Hamaoka local. For 10 years, Nagano-san has been warning about the possibility of a nuclear meltdown caused by an earthquake. So when the Fukushima disaster happened he was shocked, but not exactly surprised.
EIICHI NAGANO (Translation): They often say on TV that the scale of the disaster was 'unexpected'. The truth is that no one listened to us. No one took our concerns seriously. And that led to this disaster.
EIICHI NAGANO (Translation): We're the plaintiffs from Shizuoka in the Hamaoka Nuclear Plant stoppage lawsuit. People of Tokyo, thank you.
Nagano-san and a small group of fellow activists are fighting the power plant through the courts.
EIICHI NAGANO (Translation): It's been a year since I was here at the Tokyo High Court. We came to demand the suspension of the nuclear power plant operations.
The case has already been running for 9 years, and so far, the courts have not been sympathetic.
HIROYUKI KAWAI, LAWYER (Translation): To date, all attempts to seek stoppage of nuclear power plants have failed.
The protestors' attorney is Hiroyuki Kawai. He believes the tide of opinion has finally turned against nuclear power.
HIROYUKI KAWAI (Translation): But things will change. Since 14 March, the views of the judges have changed. Up until then, Japanese courts believed that Japan's nuclear plants were safe so they ruled against all the residents' arguments. But when they saw the accidents at the Fukushima nuclear plants, they realised for the first time that accidents do happen, and that the plaintiff, the residents, had been right. So I'm sure that they're considering looking at it differently and re-examining the case with a totally new approach.
At home in Tokyo, we can't escape the fear of radiation. Daily chores like grocery shopping have become full of angst. We worry about the radiation levels of our fruit and vegetables, and especially meat since some beef has turned out to be highly contaminated.
WOMAN (Translation): Where does this come from?
SHOPKEEPER (Translation): The ingredients are from Iwate, Aomori, Gunman and Kagashima.
WOMAN (Translation): It's all mixed. I see. I understand. Can children eat this safely?
SHOPKEEPER (Translation): These areas should be safe, I'm sure.
WOMAN (Translation): I see. Thank you.
Immediately after the quake, my Peruvian wife wanted to leave Japan with our beautiful baby girl, Luna. Financially it wasn't realistic, but Golda is still uneasy.
GOLDA (Translation): Basically, we have to get out.
REPORTER (Translation): A week after the quake, you said almost the same thing and until now, that hasn't changed. In a way, the situation is calmer now. But we are still constantly worried about radiation levels.
GOLDA (Translation): Psychologically, I still think the same thing. Emotionally, I feel the same way. It's a constant worry. Just this morning, there was another tremor. It was small, but you never know when it will be a big one.
For now, we have to take our chances until we can move to a country where Luna can grow up in safety.
YALDA HAKIM: Toshi Maeda and the family tensions caused by the nuclear disaster. By the way, the Japanese Government has downplayed the impact of radiation on children, saying the level is too low to have an immediate effect on their health. That's small comfort for parents.
There's more on Toshi's family, plus an interactive guide to the perils of radiation, its health effects and the way it seeps into the food chain. That's on our website at Sbs.com.au/dateline.
Original Music composed by Vicki Hansen
21ST August 2011