Our boat washes against a wave. Today is a calm day, Tamura tells me. We shouldn’t have too much trouble. Together, we buckle on our diving-gear, clasping the breathing masks over our mouths. Sara, our photographer, takes pictures. The water is surprisingly clear. Very little algae grows in this area of the Japanese ocean. Tamura’s studies have shown that radiation levels here are almost triple those found in the centre-Pacific. We must be careful.
Tamura Abe is one of Japan’s leading oceanographers. Along with his team, he has been surveying the Osaka-bay region for the past five years. Drawing on similar research in Bangladesh, he believes that there is a great deal of important anthropological data to be recovered beneath the waves. “This is a great time for discoveries on the ocean-floor. Thanks to new technology, new finds are being made every day. The chances of learning something new about the previous inhabitants of this land have never been higher.” I have been shadowing Tamura for the last three weeks, observing his thorough, methodical preparations for the dive. This is the first time this particular area has been surveyed. I ask him what he expects to find. “Who knows?” he says, throwing up two gloved hands.
The city of Osaka was evacuated over one-hundred and fifty years ago. In the face of rising tides laced with trace elements from the core of the Wakayama nuclear power plant, over eight million were dispersed around the remaining islands. It is a familiar story. Only in recent years have government efforts reduced radiation levels enough for safe exploration – and, although scanning technology has done much of Tamura’s work for him, he still prefers to dive himself. Nothing beats the living eye.
The area he and his team will be diving today now lies nearly 20 metres beneath the surface. Though their plan is meticulous, there is only so much that they can control. Mari Wallace, the team’s technical supervisor, explains to me that “after centuries underwater, man-made constructions can easily become unstable when disturbed. As we go down” – she makes a diving motion with her fingers – “we will create disturbances in the ordinary currents of the site. In most locations, this isn’t a large problem. Marine life disturbs such sites on a regular basis. Everything settles quickly into a stable equilibrium. However, because this particular area has been so contaminated, very little life has been able to survive. As a result, we cannot take such stability for granted. We must take extra care.”
The attraction of these kinds of dives is enormous, for archaeologists, oceanographers and governments alike. With so much information about the past lost, sites such as Osaka present unique opportunities to learn about the habits of earlier times – and, eventually, for a new kind of tourism. “I hope that one day Osaka could become a new Pompeii”, Tamura tells me after our dive. I am inclined to believe him.
At the stroke of nine, Tamura indicates that it is time for us to go. He leads the way, splashing into the water. We each follow. Under the surface, sunlight falls to shadow beneath us. Vague outlines are just visible: steel beams, flat rooftops, gullies where streets might run. Tamura guides us down. In my earpiece, I can hear a Geiger-counter clicking. We are at a relatively safe level of radiation for now – there are only one or two counts for every breath I take.
One after the other, we descend into a street. The walls on either side are like cliffs. Their glass has a pale glow, occasionally refracting sunlight into the dim around us. Below, Tamura is nearing the silted sea-floor. I count five Geiger clicks.
As time progresses, heavy radioactive trace elements tend to sink to the bottom. They become mixed with dust and decomposing plastic. Because of this, the closer we come to the ground, the higher the count rises to. Ten clicks. Street-signs, which once displayed directions, hang loosely from walls, as if they would float away at a touch. Beyond, I catch sight of a woman’s face, stretching across a from window. After so much time, one side of her has run and lost its colour. It leaves her strangely aged – though she can’t have been more than twenty-five.
We reconvene around Tamura, one metre above the street floor. Here, the Geiger clicks are so numerous that I am forced to turn down the volume of my earpiece. He indicates a doorway for us to enter and turns on his torch. Everyone nods. He moves first, flippers dragging up sediment behind him. Our torchlight illuminates it from behind in a cloud.
Inside, we find a shop. Various items lie on shelves; some in glass jars, some in plastic wrappers. The dust swirls in with us. Polythene bags and metallic cans eddy in our current. Meanwhile, the Geiger continues to rise in tempo. After a pause, team decides to split, and Mari signals for me to follow her up a flight of stairs. We rise upwards into what appears to be the hallway of a flat. The wallpaper is peeling, unstuck by the water – yet it shows no signs of decay. Mari moves into a room on my right and begins to take samples, removing them into a sealed bag. An old-fashioned set of keys. A ceramic plate. Two glasses.
There is a room to my left with a closed door. I open it, pulling the wood against the sand piled in front of it, and enter. It is a child’s bedroom. A cot sits in the corner, still draped in blankets; what appear to be toys are scattered across the floor. As I move through, I feel my breathing slow. I swim to a set of drawers. Below the sediment, there is a sketchbook, full of drawings. Mountainsides. Bays. A baby sleeping. I place the book into a bag and carry on. A miniature comb and a dummy come next. I move to pick them up and, as I do, my hand brushes against something else, hard and rectangular. It is a photograph. I clear the dust away and there they are, smiling in the street outside with a clear sky above. Two parents, cradling their newly born child outside their home.
Jamie Hancock is a student from Hampshire, currently studying at the University of Cambridge.