Though you won’t necessarily see it if you visit, Japan is still struggling to rebuild after one of the greatest natural disasters in its history.
On March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake rocked the Northeastern coast of Japan. The Great East Japan Earthquake (as it is called) propelled a powerful tsunami cresting at over 133 feet with waters flowing as far as six miles inland. The destruction wiped out entire communities and caused an unprecedented nuclear crisis when a major nuclear power plant was damaged. The damage was worst in Northern Japan (Tohoku), centered around the coastal Miyagi, Iwate, and Fukushima prefectures.
The most recent stats have confirmed almost 16,000 deaths, over 6,000 injured, and today — three years later – that more than 2,600 people still missing. In the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown, 470,000 people were evacuated from coastal communities in the exclusion zone. Most of those have not been able to return to their homes.
I remember the heartbreaking photographs from the disaster’s aftermath like it was yesterday, but when I decided to visit the Tohoku region on my recent trip to Japan, I knew I needed to learn a lot more about how the community was doing today. Luckily, a small local museum just blocks from my house was there to help me share this story.
From Tohoku to California
Last month, I attended an event at The Japanese American Museum of San Jose. This talk, “Ai Love Japan: Tohoku Update 2014” (recorded and posted at this link) featured a discussion with Darryll Miho, a Southern California-based volunteer and filmmaker who has made several trips to Northern Japan to document the recovery. The event also included a live Skype chat with several displaced residents from the Tohoku region.
We learned that still today, a full three years after the event, somewhere between 150,000 and 267,000 evacuees are still living in temporary housing units. And their stories were powerful.
Volunteers mentioned the tragic story of Okawa Elementary School (in Ishinomaki, Miyagi), which lost a shocking 70 of 108 students and 10 out of 13 teachers and staff. It wasn’t until just recently (more than two years later) that they got approval to start digging out the debris from the destroyed building.
Kiyomi Suzuki (from Minamisanriku, Miyagi) spoke about his life in a temporary dwelling and how he serves as a volunteer coordinator for his area. He talked about the many difficulties they’ve faced rebuilding housing units and how the government is going through the long and challenging process of recovery land use planning. Some of the major industries — fisheries, oyster, and seaweed processing plants along the coast have been rebuilt, but the relocation of residential communities are still being debated. Measures are being considered like mountaintop clearance to make more flat space for this needed construction. He talked about the how hard it was for local residents to find jobs, and at first, get food and transportation to grocery stores because residents lost their cars and public transit networks were destroyed. He also mentioned the ongoing need of mental health services in the community for residents struggling from the stress of living in shelters and related mental health issues.
Ryuta Kamikokuryo (from Koriyama, Fukushima) runs a mobile daycare center for young children living in housing shelters in Fukushima prefecture (see video above). He talked about how, even today, parents close to the Fukushima exclusion zone are afraid to let their children outside to play outside for fear they will pick up plants and leaves that may have radioactive materials. Every weekend, he loads 20 children into a van and drives them either an hour west into the mountains, or an hour north to the beach where they can learn about nature, and play freely.
Mitsuru Tani (from Futaba, Fukushima) was a rice farmer. After the earthquake struck, he used his tractor to help remove debris and help clear roads. At 10pm, he finally returned home, but frequent aftershocks scared his pet dogs, who wouldn’t stop barking. He spent the night sleeping in the hallway trying his best to comfort the dogs. At 7:30 the next morning, emergency workers came to his door and told him he would have to evacuate. In the past three years, he has only been able to return to his home seven times and each time for no more than one hour at a time. He still lives in temporary housing in Shirakawa City and serves as mayor of his temporary housing unit. His 173 acres of land won’t be cleared as safe to farm for more than a decade.
Though their stories were sad, each of the people interviewed seemed upbeat and hopeful for the future. Today marks the three-year anniversary of this event. Across Japan, there are memorial ceremonies today. During our trip to Tohoku, we saw surprisingly little obvious physical damage. But just beneath the surface, we could sense the community’s lingering pain.
Kevin and I both found the Miyagi area to be a great place to visit and think it’s worth a stop on any trip to Japan. In upcoming posts, we’ll will share more stories about the people and places that inspired us and tips for traveling to Tohoku.