TOMIOKA, Japan (AP) – Ten years after the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan, the lives of many survivors are still on hold.
On March 11, 2011, one of the largest earthquakes on record triggered a massive tsunami, killing more than 18,000 people and causing catastrophic collapses at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Almost half a million people have been displaced. Tens of thousands of people still have not returned home.
More than 30 trillion yen ($ 280 billion) has been spent so far on reconstruction – but even Reconstruction Minister Katsuei Hirasawa recently acknowledged that although the government has invested in new buildings, it invested less to help people rebuild their lives, for example. , providing mental health services for trauma.
The Associated Press spoke to those affected by disasters how far we’ve come – and what remains to be done.
“AS LONG AS MY BODY MOVES”
Yasuo Takamatsu, 64, lost his wife, Yuko, when the tsunami hit Onagawa in Miyagi Prefecture.
He’s been looking for her ever since.
He even got his diving license to try to find his remains, and for seven years he did weekly dives – 470 and up.
“I still think she might be somewhere nearby,” he said.
In addition to his solo dives, once a month, he joins local authorities as they conduct underwater searches for some 2,500 people whose remains are still missing in the area.
Takamatsu said the city’s scars have largely healed, “but the recovery of people’s hearts … will take time.”
So far he has found albums, clothes and other artifacts, but nothing that belonged to his wife.
He said he would keep looking for his wife “as long as my body moved.”
“In the last text she sent me she said, ‘Are you okay? I want to go home, ”he said. “I’m sure she still wants to come home.”
“TAKE BACK THE LINE”
Just a month after a tsunami as high as 17 meters (55 feet) crashed in the town of Rikuzentakata, Michihiro Kono took over his family’s soy sauce business.
That he was even able to continue this two-century-old endeavor is a miracle, he says. The precious soybean yeast was only saved because he donated it to a university lab.
Over the past decade, Kono has worked on rebuilding the business in Iwate Prefecture, and later this year he will complete construction of a new factory, replacing the one that was destroyed, on the same land where his family started making soy sauce in 1807. He even launched a soy sauce named “Miracle” in honor of the saved yeast.
“This is a critical time to see if I can do anything meaningful in the next 10 years,” said ninth generation owner of Yagisawa Shoten Co. “I was born here, and now I’m on again. the starting line. “
But challenges remain: its clientele has been wiped out. The city’s population has dropped by more than 20% to around 18,000, so he’s trying to create business networks beyond the city.
Kono often thinks of the people killed by the tsunami, with whom he used to discuss plans for revitalizing the city.
“These people all wanted to make a big city, and I want to do things that will make them say, ‘Well done, you did it’, when I see them again in the next life,” he said.
“WHO WANTS TO COME BACK?”
About 10 kilometers (6 miles) south of the destroyed nuclear power plant, rice farmer Naoto Matsumura defied a government evacuation order ten years ago and stayed on his farm to protect his land and the livestock abandoned by his neighbors.
He is always there.
Most of the town of Tomioka reopened in 2017. But dozens of neighboring houses around Matsumura are still empty, leaving the area dark at night.
The main train station in Fukushima Prefecture City has been given a facelift. A new shopping center has been built. But less than 10% of Tomioka’s former population, or 16,000, returned after massive amounts of radioactive material spewing from the factory forced evacuations from the town and other nearby areas. Certain parts of the city remain closed; houses and shops are abandoned.
“It took hundreds of years of history and effort to build this city, and it was destroyed instantly,” he said. “I grew up here … but it’s not a house anymore.”
As it took six years to lift the evacuation order, many city dwellers have already found jobs and housing elsewhere. Half of former residents say they have decided never to return, according to a city survey.
This has been true across the region.
In Tomioka, radioactive waste from the city’s decontamination efforts is still stored in a no-go zone.
“Who wants to come back to a place like this?” Matsumura asked. “I don’t see much of the future for this city.”
For company, Matsumura has several cows, a pony, and a family of hunting dogs that help him hunt wild boars. The cows are descendants of those on nearby farms he kept, in protest, after the government ordered thousands to be destroyed over fears of radiation.
This spring, for the first time since the disaster, the 62-year-old farmer is planning an experimental rice plantation and expanding his beekeeping efforts.
“I will stay here until the end of my life,” he said.
“THEIR HOUSE IS STILL HERE”
Yuya Hatakeyama was 14 when he was forced to evacuate from Tomioka after the disaster.
Now 24, the former third baseman of the Fukushima Red Hopes, a regional professional league team, is in his first year working as Tomioka mayor – but he is still not returned to live in the city, joining the many he outside.
Hatakeyama has bittersweet memories of Tomioka. The area that is now a no-go zone includes Yonomori Park, where people gathered for a cherry blossom festival. Decontamination work is intensified in the area and the city plans to lift the rest of the prohibited zone in 2023.
“I want to reach the residents, especially the younger generation, so they know their home is still there,” Hatakeyama said. One day, he says, he wants to see young families playing wrestling, like he did with his father.
“A PLACE OF COMFORT”
Hazuki Sato was 10 years old when she fled her primary school in Futaba, where the destroyed nuclear power plant was located.
She is now preparing for the coming-of-age ceremony typical of 20-year-old Japanese youth, hoping to meet in town so that she can reconnect with her scattered former classmates.
Despite horrific memories of escaping from her class, she still considers Futaba to be her home.
After studying outside the region for eight years, Sato now works for his hometown – but from an office in Iwaki, another town in Fukushima Prefecture.
None of Futaba’s 5,700 residents can return to live there until 2022, when the city is expected to partially reopen. An area outside a train station reopened last March only for a daytime visit to bring in the Olympic torch.
Sato has fond memories of Futaba – barbecuing with the family, riding an after-school unicycle, and doing homework and snacking with friends at a daycare while waiting for her grandmother to pick her up.
“I want to see this city become a place of comfort again,” she said.