Fukushima: Trouble in Mushi Mushi Land

Japan's beetle kingdom tries to recover from the nuclear disaster

Yoshinori Yoshida turned his love of rhinoceros beetles into a tourist opportunity for his town of Tamura — until the meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
Andrea Appleton

TAMURA, Japan — Yoshinori Yoshida has loved beetles since he was a boy. In the lush forests of rural Fukushima, Japan, rhinoceros beetles were abundant. Yoshida often gathered the lumbering, charismatic creatures on his walks home from school. The beetles, two-inch-long insects with a dramatic forked horn, were easy enough to carry. The larvae were harder to transport. “I would pick them up, but I had nothing to put them in,” he says. “So I would take off my socks, put them in there and take them home that way.” (His mother didn’t care for this habit, he says.)

Local tobacco farmers disliked the beetles as much as Yoshida loved them. Every year the farmers would gather fallen leaves from the forest for compost, leaving them to ferment in large piles. This kind of leaf litter is where rhinoceros beetles burrow to lay their eggs, so when the farmers sifted their compost, they were left with thousands of wriggling larvae to dispose of.

As a boy, Yoshida never dreamed he would one day work with beetles. As the first son, he was expected to take over the family business, a small clothing shop in Tamura, his hometown in eastern Fukushima prefecture. Initially, that’s what he did. It was in the local chamber of commerce that rhinoceros beetles unexpectedly entered his life once more.

Perhaps, the businessmen thought, the town could sell itself as a bona fide beetle kingdom.
A boy visits Mushi Mushi Land earlier this year.
Andrea Appleton

In the mid-1980s, Yoshida and other businessmen began pondering how the town might profit from all the larvae tobacco farmers inadvertently collected. Perhaps, the businessmen thought, the town could sell itself as a bona fide beetle kingdom. Beetles are extremely popular in Japan: Boys raise them as pets, and they’re common in Japanese advertisements, anime and video games. Here they could get access to the real thing.

In 1988, the national government unexpectedly swooped in with assistance. At the height of the bubble economy, the Japanese government granted 100 million yen (about $750,000) to every town and village in the country as part of the Hometown Revitalization Project. Towns were expected to use the money for regional promotion. Tamura spent a portion of its grant on building a beetle petting zoo and observation area. Yoshida left his parents’ clothing store to head the operation. At first, the facility was simply a large aluminum-framed enclosure in the woods, draped with green netting and filled with 1,000 or more rhinoceros beetles.

But before long, the beetles were drawing 40,000 people each summer. That just exceeds the population of Tamura. “Even though the park is small, very tiny, the insects were a unique draw,” Yoshida says. The park was dubbed Mushi Mushi Land. (“Mushi” is Japanese for bug.) The Tamura City Promotion Company was formed in 1989, and Yoshida came on as manager in 1991.

Mushi Mushi Land before the Fukushima disaster.
courtesy Mushi Mushi Land

A hotel, an insect museum and an insect-themed amusement park were built in quick succession. The amusement park was modest. All of the rides but one were gravity- or pedal-powered, but visitors didn’t seem to mind. An annual August event featuring Mushi Mushi Land’s cartoonish rhinoceros beetle mascots regularly drew thousands, Yoshida says. Television crews came to cover the unusual attraction. Visitors drove hours from Sendai, Nigata and Tokyo to spend vacations at Sky Palace Tokiwa, perched on a hilltop with a view of neighboring Mount Kamakura.

“The hotel used to be completely full of families,” Yoshida says. Then one March day, as Yoshida was preparing to purchase larvae for the summer season, the largest earthquake in Japan on record hit, triggering a tsunami. Twenty-five miles to the east, reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant went into meltdown. Within days, people all over the world would hear the word “Fukushima” and think “radioactive contamination.”

Image problem

Mushi Mushi Land is no Mount Fuji. It never drew a fraction of the tourists popular Fukushima destinations like Aizu-Wakamatsu, known as Samurai City, once did. But the tableau here is emblematic of what’s happened all over Fukushima prefecture, as tourist destinations struggle to entice visitors back. At the amusement park, barricade tape now blocks off the bumblebee seesaw, the rusting butterfly rollercoaster and the cars shaped like rhinoceros beetles. The park sits outside the mandatory evacuation zone, but it did not emerge unscathed. Thousands of pounds of irradiated soil scraped from the premises sit under a black tarp along the road, awaiting permanent disposal.

Hundreds of Japanese police and soldiers have been mobilized in a major search operation inside the deserted evacuation zone within the 20 kilometer radius from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear reactors, April, 2011.
Hiro Komae / AP

After the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, the Miyakoji district — the portion of Tamura closest to the plant — was within the mandatory evacuation zone. (The advisory was lifted last April, making it the first place in Fukushima where evacuees were allowed to return home.) Radiation readings were high in other areas of Tamura as well, exceeding the Japanese government’s target ambient radiation level of 0.23 microsieverts per hour. Decontaminating Mushi Mushi Land was not high on the local government’s priority list. So Yoshida and other employees, along with many volunteers, did it themselves. Yoshida says they removed about two inches of soil and leaf litter from any areas where children might play. They scraped moss off tree roots, removed bark and trimmed portions of trees with high radiation readings. A 65-foot radius of forest surrounding the beetle petting zoo was scraped clean.

The radiation level is very low now.

Yoshinori Yoshida

founder, Mushi Mushi Land

Irradiated soil at the park, 2014
Andrea Appleton

“The radiation level is very low now,” Yoshida says. Nevertheless, Yoshida acknowledges the amusement park may never reopen. The hotel has been booked solid for months, but the guests are all decontamination workers. (They recently completed their work in Tamura. Now they commute to Tomioka, a ghost town in the devastated no-go zone surrounding the nuclear plant.)

The beetle petting zoo — which has reopened, though the amusement park has not — drew just 9,800 visitors last year, nearly all from Fukushima prefecture. Mushi Mushi Land once paid local farmers 30 yen — about 30 cents — per beetle larva and bought as many as 70,000 a year. Eleventh-generation farmer Yoshiteru Watanabe took in about $300 a year from the larvae. “My mother collected them and packed them and brought them to the company,” he says. “It was pocket money. But she was very happy.” 

Collecting the fallen leaves where beetles like to lay their eggs is now forbidden because the forests have not been decontaminated. Local farmers must use commercial compost (beetles not included). Mushi Mushi Land now buys beetle larvae from mushroom farmers in Nihonmatsu, a city to the northwest. “These are large-scale farms. Just one farmer can give us 7,000 or 8,000 larvae,” Yoshida says. “But our original intention, to benefit Tamura, is over.”

Evacuation zones are published on Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry website and were last updated April 1, 2014.

Beetle larvae are the least of Fukushima farmers’ problems. The prefecture was once known for its rice, produce and seafood. More than three years after the disaster, some nations still ban the import of products from Fukushima and many Japanese remain wary of purchasing food produced in the prefecture.

“Fukushima is a very large prefecture,” says Kayoko Sugawara, deputy director of Fukushima’s Tourism Promotion Division. (Indeed, it’s one of the largest in Japan, about the size of Connecticut.) Sugawara points to a map, tracing the 60-some miles between the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant and Samurai City: “You can see the long distance.” The city of Sendai, in Miyagi Prefecture, is actually closer to the plant than many areas within the prefecture. But the nuclear notoriety belongs solely to Fukushima.

Katsumi Suzuki, of Tamura’s public-relations department, points out that Japan has about 50 nuclear reactors and Fukushima Daiichi is one of the few named for a prefecture. Most cite a town instead. “That was really unfortunate,” Suzuki says. “If they had used Futaba Daiichi [one of the towns where the plant is located], then Fukushima prefecture wouldn’t have been damaged so badly.” 

Local dancers perform a traditional dance during the Soma-Nomaoi festival in Minami Soma city, located 30 kilometers from the destroyed nuclear power plants in Fukushima prefecture, Japan, July 27, 2014.
Everett Kennedy Brown / EPA / Landov

Tourism is the other front in this PR campaign. Fukushima does not track the economic importance of tourism itself, but hotels and restaurants alone account for 12 percent of the prefecture’s economy. Visitor numbers plunged in the months following the disaster; educational trips in Fukushima remain at 40 percent of their pre-accident level. The number of tourists rebounded to around 85 percent of its pre-accident level last year, but the effect is probably temporary. Last year a popular historical drama series on Japan’s NHK network focused on Yae Niijima, a late 19th-century female samurai from Fukushima. Says Sugawara, “I attribute most of the improvement to that TV show.”

So Fukushima — with the help of the national government — is pouring money into promotional campaigns. According to The Asahi Shimbun, a Japanese newspaper, the prefecture spent about 1.7 billion yen ($16.6 million) last fiscal year to fight radiation rumors. Cars plastered with ads celebrating Fukushima now circulate through metropolitan areas. A joint campaign with Japan Railways will soon bring promotional posters featuring Sayuri Yoshinaga, a popular actress, to Japanese train stations. Travelers will also find brochures celebrating the region’s attractions — its natural areas, traditional Japanese hot springs and hotels, even its disaster sites. The prefecture is promoting what it calls “reconstruction tourism”: bus trips led by victims of the nuclear accident and tsunami. More commonly known as “dark tourism,” this is familiar ground for the Japanese. The site of the atomic bombing in Hiroshima is one of the most popular destinations in the country.

A question of safety

The argument underlying all of these efforts is, of course, that it is safe to travel to Fukushima. The Tourism Promotion Bureau is working very hard to spread that message. Brochures highlight the prefecture’s strict food inspection criteria while noting that normal activities like flying in an airplane expose a person to heightened doses of radiation. One pamphlet claims a weeklong trip to Fukushima delivers the radiation equivalent of a dental X-ray. In May, the bureau released a regularly updated radiation map of Fukushima’s major tourist spots on its website. It relies on some of the 3,659 monitoring posts sprinkled throughout the prefecture. On a recent visit to the site, only one of the highlighted tourist destinations — the Minamisoma City Museum — registered over the government’s recommended 0.23 microsievert-per-hour level.

“We are living normally here,” Sugawara says. “So we’re saying, ‘Please come and see.’ ”

Sugawara says rumors, not facts, are making outsiders fearful. She cites a popular Japanese manga (comic book) series that created an uproar last spring. The manga linked rumors of frequent nosebleeds among visitors and residents with radiation exposure. (The incident provoked such an outcry that the publisher suspended the series.)

Safecast, a data group founded after the Fukushima disaster, maintains a database of radiation readings. Above is a screengrab of the readings from Sept. 11, 2014. The Japanese government is allowing people to return home when radiation levels fall to .23 microseiverts per hour (light blue).

Reports from both the World Health Organization and the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation support the prefecture’s safety claims. They conclude that any radiation-induced effects of the 2011 accident on residents of Fukushima outside the most contaminated areas would be too small to identify. (By these standards, visitors run hardly any risk at all.)

But little is known about the health effects of long-term exposure to low levels of radiation. And a few worrisome patterns have emerged. Doctors in Fukushima have found higher than normal rates of thyroid cancer in children. (Skeptics say this is simply the result of better monitoring.) And several studies on wild animals in Fukushima — including birds, butterflies and monkeys — suggest that radiation is already having significant impacts on some species.

Some people feel that the government’s radiation measurements themselves are inadequate. Safecast — a nonprofit formed after the Fukushima Daiichi accident for the purpose of gathering more detailed radiation data — uses crowdsourcing to fill the gaps. “Radiation levels can fluctuate in very short distances, so that simply crossing a street can sometimes yield dramatically different readings,” notes Safecast’s website. By arming hundreds of citizens with radiation-reading devices, Safecast has created a much more detailed map of radiation dispersal from the Fukushima Daiichi plant.

Shoppers line up to buy peaches at a promotional event for products from Fukushima Prefecture organized by the Tokyo Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Tokyo on July 28. Some countries ban import of produce from the prefecture.
Kyodo / Landov

Norio Watanabe teaches computer science and engineering at a high school in Koriyama, a city about 40 miles west of the plant. He also volunteers for Safecast. “Personally what I am doing is going to places that children go, for example parks,” he says. “There are some places where the levels are still really high.” Watanabe pulls up a few photographs on his cell phone. In one, he is holding a device registering 0.56 microsieverts per hour, more than twice the government’s target level. Directly behind the gadget, a group of children play in an athletic field.

Watanabe is not the first to voice concerns about radiation levels in Koriyama, though the city lies far outside the evacuation zone. Soon after the tsunami, the families of 14 children living there filed a lawsuit arguing that radiation levels in the city were unsafe for children. Koriyama, the lawsuit said, should evacuate them. (The Sendai High Court rejected the lawsuit last year.)

For financial reasons, I have to be here for work until my two sons finish college. But after that, I'm thinking about moving.

Norio Watanabe

Teacher in Koriyama, Fukushima prefecture

Within the mandatory evacuation zone, the national government is in charge of decontamination. But in places like Koriyama, cities largely manage their own decontamination. And, depending on the municipality, the administrative authority can be quite arcane. One city park may fall under numerous different departments. An athletic field might be the responsibility of the city’s school-and-education bureau, for example, while green space might fall under the parks department and the grounds of a museum might be the domain of a music-and-culture department. The result, Watanabe says, is that public spaces are sometimes not uniformly decontaminated.

As a Safecast member, Watanabe says, he must retain his objectivity. But as a Fukushima citizen, years of data gathering have convinced him his home is not safe.

“For financial reasons, I have to be here for work until my two sons finish college,” he says. (Both are currently studying in other prefectures, partly at his insistence.) “But after that, I’m thinking about moving. We’ve prepared for that.”

An invisible menace

A sign at the park saying, “We are all in this together” (literal translation: "Everyone together").
Andrea Appleton

On a recent morning, clusters of excited children gathered in Mushi Mushi Land’s outdoor beetle observation area. They plucked rhinoceros beetles from the trees and held the giant insects in their palms. Some tried to goad the beetles into fighting one another, but that morning none were in the mood. The Sato family was visiting from their home in Kawamata, about an hour’s drive north. “We just came because we know they have decontaminated,” said Aiko Sato.

Her four-year-old son, Seita, first became interested in beetles last year. “I have a lot of rhinoceros beetles in my house,” he said, holding a wiggling specimen upside down in one hand as another perched on the brim of his hat. Asked why he loved beetles, he replied, “Because I’m a boy.”

Beetle mania has seen peaks and troughs since Mushi Mushi Land opened. In 2004, a popular video game called Mushi-King fueled a nationwide fad. The game pitted different species of beetles against one another in a war for territory. Yoshida says 10,000 more visitors came to Mushi Mushi Land that year than in the previous one. Interest has since died down. Even before the nuclear disaster, visitor numbers to the facility had declined from their peak in the 1990s.

Of course it’s nice if kids laugh and have a good time here. But if they and their families also learned about the importance of the cycle of life, that would be wonderful for me.

Yoshinori Yoshida

Mushi Mushi Land founder

“It wasn’t new anymore,” Yoshida says, “and the number of children in Japan has dropped.” He hopes, nevertheless, to resurrect the amusement park. There is talk of promoting the hotel as a base for runners interested in training on the surrounding mountain trails. Above all, Yoshida hopes to keep the petting zoo in operation. It was the first facility of its kind in Japan, he says. 

On a sunny summer day here, surrounded by thick forested hillsides, one is apt to forget the problems this area faces. Some people consider it a dangerous place because of radioactive contamination. Others, like Yoshida, feel that the invisible menace here is not the radiation itself but the public’s reaction to it. That is an obstacle he hopes to overcome, for the sake of his beloved beetle kingdom.

“Whatever happens, we have to protect the beetle observation park. I think when children just touch or deal with insects, they learn to respect life,” he says, gazing wistfully up at the treetops, where the wiser beetles cluster out of the reach of small hands. “These days the number of people who can’t even touch insects is increasing. I think this is a really big issue. Of course it’s nice if kids laugh and have a good time here. But if they and their families also learned about the importance of the cycle of life, that would be wonderful for me.”

Reporting for this story was supported by the U.S.-Japan Foundation, through the International Center for Journalists. 

“It wasn’t new anymore,” Yoshida says, “and the number of children in Japan has dropped.” He hopes, nevertheless, to resurrect the amusement park. There is talk of promoting the hotel as a base for runners interested in training on the surrounding mountain trails. Above all, Yoshida hopes to keep the petting zoo in operation. It was the first facility of its kind in Japan, he says. 

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