As Keow Wee Loong steps over the threshold of a long-abandoned supermarket entrance, a haunting sight reveals itself. The photographer carefully makes his way through the piles of groceries that are strewn around the aisles. The stillness of the heavy, toxic air seems at odds with the havoc that looks to have taken place here in the Fukushima exclusion zone – where few people have set foot in five whole years.
The 27-year-old Loong hails from Malaysia and describes himself as a photographer and explorer. And so in July 2016, he visited four abandoned towns in Fukushima, Japan with his buddies, Sherena Ng and Koji Hori. The exclusion zone itself was set up in response to the disaster which occurred at the area’s nuclear power plant in the aftermath of the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami of March 2011.
It had been a lifelong dream of Loong’s to explore a deserted town. Because when sharing this astonishing series of photos on Facebook, he joked that he’d always wanted to be “alone in a supermarket,” to “eat all the chocolate up.”
When he first tried to get into the exclusion zone, however, Loong found himself facing a number of bureaucratic obstacles. But apparently too impatient to wait the three to four weeks necessary to get a permit, he instead snuck through a nearby forest with his friends in order to bypass the security surrounding the area.
However, exploring the exclusion zone proved to be a strange experience for the photographer and his friends. Stores still carried books, magazines and films from 2011, and the laundromat still had abandoned clothes in some of the washing machines.
And in Okuma, one of the four towns Loong visited, the traffic lights were still operating – despite there being no one left in the town to use them. Undaunted, Loong and his friends also journeyed to Tomioka, Namie and Futaba.
The Fukushima nuclear disaster in March 2011 was the worst of its kind since the Chernobyl accident in 1986. In fact, those two are the only disasters ever to be designated with the maximum grading on the International Nuclear Event Scale.
Construction of the nuclear facility in Fukushima began in 1967, with the plant commencing operations four years later. Somewhat ironically, it was originally scheduled to be shut down in early 2011. But sadly, the plant was renewed for a further ten years of operation in February of that year – only a month before the catastrophe occurred.
The disaster was set in motion by the tsunami that followed the Tōhoku earthquake, the epicentre of which was around 70 kilometers east of Japan’s coast. Consequently, a huge wave inundated the power plant, leading to equipment failures that in turn led to radioactive equipment leaks. And this put hundreds of thousands of people in danger.
Inevitably, around 150,000 people had to be evacuated from the area and its surrounding towns and villages. But with no time to grab personal belongings or valuables, the residents left behind a veritable time capsule of goods and treasures.
And so the exclusion zone, also known as the “red zone,” was put into effect immediately following the evacuation of the area. Altogether, it spans 12 and a half miles of territory.
The implementation of the no-go area was essential. Indeed, it was vital to ensure that as few people as possible were harmed by the lingering effects of the radiation that had permeated the area. And to this day, the exclusion zone remains in place.
But while short-term exposure to the radiation leaked by the Fukushima plant has not been directly linked to any deaths, there are still plenty of potential long-term effects for the area’s inhabitants. Perhaps surprisingly, mental health issues have been cited as the most likely consequence for locals, owing to the stress of uncertainty and forced relocation.
However, scientists still aren’t certain about whether low doses of radiation will impact people in the long term. Because of that, it’s difficult to know when to allow residents back to their homes.
Nevertheless, the impact on wildlife in the area is estimated to be negligible, according to a 2014 study. Indeed, radiation levels are apparently not serious enough to stop local plant and animal populations from thriving.
For now, though, there are no humans populations in the exclusion zone. So when Loong ventured there with his friends, he found these eerie scenes – snapshots of the terrifying moments after a disaster, frozen in time.
Because of the radiation levels, the trio couldn’t stay too long, despite being equipped with gas masks. While there, however, they managed to capture an essence of the atmosphere that now envelops the area.
And while Loong has enjoyed a moment in the spotlight thanks to his bold images, not all reactions have been positive. Indeed, many commenters on his Facebook page have strongly criticized his actions.
One particularly unhappy commentator even posted an open letter on his blog, claiming Loong’s “tarnishing of Japan’s image for personal gain is irresponsible and distasteful at best.” The blogger, known as Pierce, cited a Fukushima resident as saying Loong’s actions were “illegal [and] extremely disrespectful.”
Yet whatever the rights and wrongs of his work, there’s no denying that Loong’s photographs offer us a unique and intriguing insight into a remarkable place. For five long years, the area has remained completely untouched – seeing it now is fascinating and moving.