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Forbidden foraging

Villagers can gather, but not eat, wild plants
Written by Katy Spence

Someone was stealing mushrooms from Hideo Watanabe’s secret spot.


The gatherers of Kawauchi Village in Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, jealously guard places where treasured wild edible plants and mushrooms grow. So when Watanabe discovered that someone had been stealing from his spot, he was outraged.


“It was my spot,” he said, emphasizing the words. “Do it yourself!”


The next time he went foraging, Watanabe picked everything he found, so no one else could.

But Watanabe doesn’t eat the wild plants and mushrooms he gathers. Since Kawauchi’s forests were contaminated with radioactive cesium in March 2011, residents are no longer permitted to eat what they gather.

Hideo Watanabe holds three warabi, or bracken shoots. These shoots likely contain more than the nationally-designated safe amount of radiation, but Watanabe finds joy in simply hunting and finding cherished wild plants.

Photo by Katy Spence

Wild edible plants and mushrooms in the forest surrounding Kawauchi were contaminated with radiation when hydrogen explosions shot radioactive steam into the air after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant meltdown. Wind carried the radiation inland and coated the forests.


According to a 2014 study, more than 40 percent of Kawauchi wild plants and mushroom samples exceeded the national limit of radiocesium concentration. Japan has set that limit at 100 Becquerel/kg. Becquerel or Bg measures radiation activity. One mushroom sample from Kawauchi contained 9305 Bq/kg -- 90 times the acceptable limit.


Yoshihiro Sanpei manages the local use of forests and farmland for the village government. Foraging, he said, has always been an important part of life for the small communities that dot Japan’s heavily forested mountain lands. The 3.11 disaster has been tremendously disruptive for the 700 or so people who call Kawauchi home.


“The mountain lifestyle before the earthquake was [all about] gathering and eating wild plants, mushrooms and wild boar, but that has all gone away,” Sanpei said.


The forests surrounding the central village crowd houses and rice paddies. On rainy days, clouds cling to mountaintops, and on windy days, the forests sound like an ocean.


Dense vegetation competes for space. Every available inch of soil is claimed by ancient trees, shoots of grass or underbrush. Thick layers of cedar clippings and plant debris litter the forest floor, providing a soft but unstable layer on steep mountainsides. In springtime, the air is still cool and fresh, with no hint of the humid rainy season to come.


Within this natural labyrinth, foragers of the region hunted for plants, mushrooms and game for centuries before the 3.11 disaster. While many villagers continue to gather forest goods today, they are not allowed to sell or distribute them.


Sanpei said there is no way for officials to track whether villagers consume the plants they collect or not, but it is widely accepted that many still eat what they gather.


Just up the hill from where Sanpei works in the village public office, Minoko Yamamoto works in one of four food testing facilities in Kawauchi.  She enjoys gathering wild plants but she doesn't forage mushrooms because she said all of the spots are already claimed. Unlike Watanabe’s thief, Yamamoto respects the customs of foraging.


Yamamoto has easy access to the testing facility and says that she tests anything she gathers for cesium-134 and cesium-137. She doesn’t eat any foods with more than 30 Bq/kg, even though that is well within the acceptable limit. Cesium-137 is a rare but deadly synthetic isotope that decays slowly and so is lingering evidence of nuclear accidents.

The forests of Kawauchi cover almost 90 percent of the village and are full of many varieties of edible plants, mushroom and wild game. After the 3.11 disaster, many of these wild foods contain dangerous amounts of radiation. Photo by Katy Spence 

'The mountain lifestyle before the earthquake was [all about] gathering and eating wild plants, mushrooms and wild boar, but that has all gone away.'

Many people won't bring food in for testing if they know there is a higher chance it will show radiation contamination. As treasured as mushrooms are, some varieties naturally absorb more cesium and are more dangerous to consume, Yamamoto said. But she understands why her fellow gatherers carry on the tradition of gathering mushrooms.


“A lot is that it’s old times,” she said. “The mushrooms are a delicacy, like caviar and foie gras.”


Before the disaster, foragers created brands for themselves and the goods they gathered to distribute. Over time, the village built a food culture unique to the region and became globally known for high-quality mushrooms. After the disaster, local and regional consumers lost trust in these brands, even though local testers and scholars have found that farmed foods from the area are overwhelmingly clean. Many villagers still travel outside of Kawauchi to buy food that isn't local.


Kawauchi covers almost 77 square miles, slightly more area than Washington, D.C., but it is home to only about 700 permanent residents. An additional 1,100 former residents or so commute to the village but live elsewhere. Once famous for its onsen, fishing and mushrooms, the area has seen a drop in tourism and the shutdown of several schools.


Maki Tsuboi, of the Fukushima Future Center for Regional Revitalization, said the sprawling nature of the village has made self-sufficiency an essential part of the local identity.


Without the pre-3.11 population to supports services, grocery stores have become as inconveniently distant as the hospital or high school that are an hour or more away.


“Their life totally changed because of this disaster,” Tsuboi said. “Many people lost things and routines.”


Routines and traditions are incredibly important to foragers. Presenting gathered foods to guests is a mandatory hospitality. After the disaster, Yamamoto -- the radiation tester -- said many older villagers face a difficult choice: cultural tradition or personal health.


“Due to the radiation, people need to decide whether they gather for nutrition or for the joy of collecting,” Yamamoto said.


It is still unclear how long-term, low-dose radiation affects people. Timothy Mousseau, professor of biological sciences at the University of South Carolina, Columbia, has been studying the impacts of radiation on Chernobyl insects, birds and plants since 1999.  He has recently turned his attention to Fukushima, seeking to compare his findings there to what he found in Chernobyl.


In both places, Mousseau found that birds in radiation-contaminated areas have smaller brains and may develop cataracts. Insect populations plummet and plant development is stunted. Over multiple generations, evidence of genetic mutation has indicated that exposure to higher radiation levels is the common factor. Even low levels, such as those found in Kawauchi forests, can be harmful over time, Mousseau said.

'Long before three centuries have passed, it seems likely that the tradition of gathering in Kawauchi may be lost.'

Photo by Katy Spence - Yamamoto Minoko, left, and colleague demonstrate the food testing process. These strawberries contained a safe amount of radiation.

“There is no level [of radiation] below which there are no effects,” Mousseau said. “That’s garbage.”


Mousseau said that it could take 300 years for the forests to return to normal, depending on the initial amount of radioactive material.


Long before three centuries have passed, it seems likely that the tradition of gathering in Kawauchi may be lost. Today it seems few, if any foragers are under the age of 65.


Watanabe, whose prized gathering area was compromised by an interloper, has been foraging for most of his life. He began combing the woods with his parents. They showed him how to navigate the forest and find the best growing places. He learned which foods were safe to eat and which were dangerous. And when he was old enough, Watanabe went out and found his own spots to collect wild plants and mushrooms.


Watanabe walked through the rain with practiced, confident steps, and made a beeline for a sparsely vegetated area near a building. He ducked under a fence, his aged frame bending easily in pursuit of his prize: warabi. Bracken shoots. They’re bright green fern stalks with small fiddleheads and can be difficult to spot unless you know exactly where to find them.


Watanabe does.


He emerged from the vegetation, victorious. Before 3.11, the three stalks of warabi in his hand could be pickled or turned into tempura. Now, he said, they will likely not be eaten.


Watanabe mourns the contamination in the village. He continues to forage because it is what he has always done, and he hopes that it will not always be contaminated.


“Someday, I'll be able to eat it,” Watanabe said.”When the radiation goes away, I'll need to protect my spot so I can gather there again.”


Until such a time, which will be far into the future, Watanabe is content to continue gathering wild edibles.


“We can't eat them but many people are happy with just gathering,” he said. “The joy from gathering is greater than the joy of eating.”

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