Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert

News from an editorial, corporate, portrait, reportage photographer. Based in Scotland, tel. +44-(0)7831-138817

On the trail of ‘nuclear gypsies’.

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(Read Justin McCurry’s Fukushima’s ‘nuclear gypsies’ article here, and to here to see the full take of my photographs of Fukushima’s ‘nuclear gypsies’ casual labour workers. )

So a lot of my assignments recently have seen me heading to the north, and north east of Japan, to photograph in the Tohoku tsunami zone or to the cities, such as Fukushima,  where the residents are now trying desperately to cope with living with the very real fear of nuclear radiation contamination.

One of these photography assignments took me last week to Iwaki-Yumoto, in Fukushima-ken, on the trail of Japan’s ‘nuclear gypsies’ ( a term coined by Kunio Horie in 1979) – the men who travel around Japan, working as seasonal labourers at the various nuclear power plants. Iwaki-Yumoto until recently was a seen-better-days spa resort town, but now, due to it’s proximity to the troubled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant it is enjoying a boom of room bookings due to the fact is has become the lodgings town for the casual workers who are cleaning up the mess of Fukushima Daiichi.

The hotels and the ryokans are fully booked, with their inhabitants working the dangerous 3 hour shifts at the plant (earning ¥12,000 per day),  leaving and arriving at all times of the day as the shifts begin and finish. It’s a double edged sword for the hotels and lodgings, one owner predicted that they may have the workers there for up to 3 years, fixing the troubled nuclear reactors. But then what, the town will hardly return to being a spa resort again ? It’s glory days appeared to have gone already, and in light of the disaster now are even more so. So the hotels take the workers now, while the bookings are there. Even though it is reported men come staggering off the work buses still clad in their nuclear protective clothing, therefor bringing back possible contamination to the lodgings. In my brief visit there I didn’t see this, but we were told of such stories.

I was there with Justin McCurry of The Guardian, to do the assignment, to try and find the men and most importantly try to interview one or two who would go on the record, give their name, be interviewed, be photographed. We struck lucky by having a helpful ryokan owner tell us of an izakaya where the casual labourers would drink in the evening, and with that piece of advice we wandered the streets, looking to see what was happening and looking to speak to people. The town was quiet, not much to see. Beside the station sat a few guys drinking alcohol. Men walked around, most of whom clutching bags from the convenience store, within which beer cans strained against the bag. There seemed to be a lot of drinking going on in the town.

It didn’t take us too long to find a worker to speak with, one or two false starts, and then we see a guy heading to the convenience store and then back again, carrying beers and cigarettes. We first see him and his hair wet, straight from the baths or shower, exiting a hotel where they seemed to be a bit of activity- men coming and going from cars and the hotel. One man standing outside smoking, and on his bare exposed legs the obvious imprint of Tyvek ptrotective wear suits having been taped tightly against his legs. It was obvious this hotel was one used by the workers.

So the wet hair guy comes back with his beers, and we step forward to intorduce ourselves and to ask if he was a worker at the plant, and could we chat. He was happy to do so, asked us to wait a few moments whilst he fetched his cigarettes from his room (a few moments in which we wondered if he’d just made a polite excuse and left), and then he came back, out from the hotel, and motioned to a little park nearby where we could sit in the fading light of evening, swipe at mosquitos, and chat…

Read Justin McCurry’s Fukushima’s ‘nuclear gypsies’ article here, and to here to see the full take of my photographs of Fukushima’s ‘nuclear gypsies’ casual labour workers.

And here is how the story ran in The Guardian yesterday…

Fukushima workers, as appeared in The Guardian.

 

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