Land of the Rising Becquerels: Into the Forbidden Zone with William T. Vollmann

Into the Forbidden Zone: A Trip Through Hell and High Water in Post-Earthquake Japan (Kindle Single)
Into the Forbidden Zone
cover image: Byliner
William T. Vollmann, the prolific novelist/journalist/essayist, has written a long article chronicling his odyssey into Japan's "forbidden zone" for the upstart e-publisher, Byliner. Byliner has so-far published only one other e-book, Three Cups of Deceit by Jon Krakauer,which has caused a stir recently regarding the veracity of Greg Mortensen's memoir Three Cups of Tea. The publisher promotes these Byliner Originals as Great writers. Great stories. Readable in a single sitting. They are available in Kindle format (as Kindle Singles), for the iPad, or in audio format.

Vollmann reports from his beloved Japan with a tentative sense of urgency. Day by day he creeps closer to the radioactive center of the nuclear disaster site in Myagi prefecture which officials have rated as at least equal in scope to the Chernobyl fallout of twenty five years ago. He purchases a handy dosimeter (Geiger counter) in the states, testing it with some old radioactive material provided by a neighbor.

Once in Japan, he surveys the earthquake damage in Sendai, listens to stories of tsunami survivors, and hires various taxi drivers to drive him nearer and nearer to the TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company) reactor site #1, Fukushima. Mr. Vollmann is vigilant to say the least when it comes to tracking his accumulated radiation exposure. We learn about becquerels, millirems and microsieverts and hear about every tick up on the dosimeter. Apparently if you reach an accumulated 500 rems its lethal for half the exposed. He sets his ten day ceiling to 5 rems.

The Author
photo by William T. Vollmann
Through random interviews with the locals we hear what it was like to face a tidal wave on foot or to ride out an 9.0 earthquake in your car. Of the nuclear accident, Vollmann brings up the Hiroshima question whenever he can, ruminating on the ironies to be found, but he is ever met with ignorance of the details from that earlier era. "Of course more  foreigners visit the [Hiroshima] museum than Japanese" says a taxi driver on that fateful island today. In fact many of the residents outside of the inner ring, a twenty kilometer radius from the ground zero reactor, were not too concerned about being exposed to radiation. Whether this is because of the government downplay of the danger or simply the humility of the Japanese people in general, we never really learn. But we are reminded of the Japanese peoples strong nationalism. The author writes of his conversation with the same Hiroshima taxi driver:

"Should TEPCO be punished?" I inquired.
"It was the government's policy" he said loyally. "They did it for the nation." 

  • Title: Into the Forbidden Zone: A Trip Through Hell and High Water in Post-Earthquake Japan 
  • Author: William T. Vollmann
  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 355 KB
  • Print Length: 61 pages
  • Publisher: Byliner; 1 edition (May 1, 2011)