Posts Tagged ‘Fukushima’

World Kid Lit Month Review: Riku and the Kingdom of White

By Malavika Nataraj, Singapore

September is #WorldKidLit Month, a time to notice if world literature is reaching kids in the form of translations. Malavika Nataraj shares this review of children’s novel Riku and the Kingdom of White by Randy Taguchi, translated by Raj Mahtani, published by Balestier Press.

On March 11, 2011, the world watched in open-mouthed horror as the most powerful earthquake ever to rock Japan set off a giant wave that lapped up everything in its path: a tsunami that slammed into three reactors in the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant complex, crippling them and resulting in a catastrophic release of radioactive waste that affected hundreds and thousands of lives.

We all heard and read about the evacuations, the relief operations despatched into the worst hit areas, the scores of people who lost everything—their homes, their families, their possessions. Japan was in a panic; all of the resources it had strived to protect—its waterways, the sea, the very air—had fallen prey to the invisible evil that was seeping into everything, silent and deadly. Radiation. This word reverberated through the nation and beyond. Exports suffered. Share prices dropped. People had little or no electricity. Cartons of uncontaminated food and bottled water were scarcely unboxed before they flew off store shelves. Fear lurked everywhere. Hundreds and thousands of residents within a 20-kilometer radius of the damaged Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant were forcibly evacuated, their hometowns deemed too dangerous to inhabit.

Yet many people chose to remain nearby. Technicians, engineers, doctors and fire-fighters stayed behind, risking their own lives and those of their families to help the nation fight the catastrophe. We, the world, heard the reports, read the articles and watched the news. But could we ever fully understand the challenges these people faced, living in a radioactive disaster zone?

In towns that were as close as 40 kilometers to the epicentre of the disaster, many families soldiered on. Children still went to school, teachers still taught, and most residents made themselves as useful as they could. They organized volunteer centres, ran operations to de-contaminate their streets, and closed their windows against the radiation. Despite their challenges, their view of the world remained as upbeat as possible. But the way the rest of Japan viewed the Fukushima residents had changed. People became wary of the evacuees and residents, fearing that they had been ‘contaminated’.

This did not stop volunteers from pouring in. They came from all over Japan, bringing with them food, hope and helping hands. Many were moved by the plight of the children in Fukushima, who had been robbed of a normal childhood so suddenly.

The Fukushima Kids project kicked off in summer 2011, to give Fukushima kids an opportunity to learn and grow amidst nature—something they were no longer able to do in their own hometowns, for fear of exposure to radiation.

Over the summer, spring and winter breaks, hundreds of children were shepherded out of Fukushima to other parts of Japan, where they participated in homestays, enjoyed hands-on activities, played sport, went on treks, spent time with animals, ate healthy food, and generally enjoyed being ‘normal’ kids. This afforded them a chance to relax and refresh, learn new things and be close to nature again. The Fukushima Kids Executive Committee, formed by volunteers, ran the project successfully for five years.

Author Randy Taguchi

Author Randy Taguchi’s charming narrative, Riku and the Kingdom of White, is the result of time she spent as a volunteer in the Fukushima Kids project, working with the families and children of Fukushima. Through her involvement, she had the opportunity to interact with and interview dozens of Fukushima residents, and she was deeply moved by their resilience and strength.

Her story is the simple, yet thought-provoking tale of Riku, a fifth-grader, whose physician father accepts a transfer to Minamisoma, a town near the disaster zone. Having fresh air to breathe and good food to eat were things Riku never had to think about. Until now. And he is definitely not prepared for how much his life is about to change.

When Riku’s classmates in Utsunomiya find out that he is transferring to a school in Fukushima, their reaction is of shock and horror. “He’ll die of the radiation, poor guy,” they say. Riku’s aunt Midori, his mother’s sister who lives in Yokohama, also has nothing but horror stories to share about the fate of the towns near the epicentre of the disaster. But nothing will change his father’s mind, so Riku—whose life, he believes, is not in his control—puts on a brave face and prepares to follow his father. His mother has passed away, and his dad is the only family he has now.

The story, translated into English by Raj Mahtani, is told through Riku’s eyes. Through Riku, Taguchi has us experience a world where children go to school breathing only through masks. Their clothing covers every inch of their skin, and their heads droop like wilted flowers under their hats. Frozen and canned food, sausages, rice from other parts of Japan, carried in the capable arms of volunteers—these are the foods they eat. Tiny cylindrical objects that continuously measure radiation levels, called dosimeters, dangle from their necks as a reminder of their new reality. Taught in classrooms with sealed windows, sweating through the blistering summer months, they need at all costs, to be protected from this invisible evil, radiation. They inhabit a world where no one is allowed to play outside; a place where only the wind pushes the swings in empty parks, and unused bicycles turn to rust in garages.

When Riku arrives at Minamisoma, memories of his Utsunomiya life still fresh in his mind, he is stunned at how empty the town feels, like a town of ghosts. There are no kids about and he sorely misses running around with his best friend Yuta, and riding bikes the way they used to. When Riku finally does meet local children, he feels like an outsider. He is aware that he isn’t a ‘real’ Fukushima kid. At first, he is baffled by the others. Why don’t they play outside? Why do they all look so downcast? But as time passes, he begins to understand too well the magnitude of the disaster, and the impact it has had on the lives of Fukushima’s children.

The children naturally look to adults for answers. How should we live? What should we do? But no answers come, because the adults themselves are confused. They are stressed out and sad. Decontamination of the pavements, soil, and school grounds happens multiple times a day. But no one knows what to do with the radioactive waste. What’s the point of decontaminating the mud, if it is just going to be stuffed into bags, piled up and left here anyway? Riku thinks. The adults are full of contradictions. “We just want you to study without any worries, Sweetie,” says one mother. Riku wonders if that is even possible anymore.

Throughout this book, Riku runs through a gamut of emotions: anger at his father for bringing him to Fukushima, confusion, sadness, and finally, acceptance.

The more time Riku spends in Minamisoma, the more like a ‘Fukushima kid’ he becomes. This is never clearer than when he goes to stay with Aunt Midori during his summer break. His cousins are afraid to come near him in case he is contaminated; his aunt won’t let him touch anything without having a hot bath first. He feels contaminated, like an untouchable, an outcast. He realizes that this is how everyone views children like him—children who are living in the disaster zone. He sees that he can never go back ‘home’ to Utsunomiya or anywhere. He has lost his home forever.

Things begin to look up for Riku when he and four other children get the chance to leave Fukushima during winter break, as part of the Fukushima Kids project. He learns that he will go to Hokkaido, a place that holds the fondest memories for him, because it was there that his family had their last holiday before his mother’s death.

In Hokkaido, he spends time outdoors, crunching through snow in his snowshoes and learning about animals of the forest from his homestay host Mr. Nomura. He has thoughtful conversations with the indomitable Gen-san and with Mr. Nomura’s son Yoichi. In Hokkaido, no one treats him like an outsider or an outcast. He finally feels like a regular kid. Slowly, he begins to heal.

Translator Raj Mahtani

Riku begins to come to terms with the loss of his mother; he battles his loneliness by befriending a mysterious boy in the woods and a mischievous tonchi. He finally returns to Fukushima, more mature and responsible. He begins to see that his life is his own and he can live it with strength and heart. And that being a Fukushima Kid isn’t so bad after all.

Riku and the Kingdom of White is a valuable story of a boy’s spiritual evolution. And translator Raj Mahtani, who has collaborated with Taguchi on her book Fujisan, brings Riku to life for the English reader.

A Yokohama resident, Mahtani has been translating from Japanese to English since the nineties. His other translations include Rieko Saegusa’s Tale Winds, Fumitada Naoe’s Live with Meaning. Die with Passion and Shiho Kishimoto’s I Hear Them Cry.

 

Reviewer and editor’s note: We hope for Balestier Press to issue a second, carefully edited edition of this novel that does justice to its highly compelling content. 

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