Japan seeks ‘recovery of people’s hearts’ decade after quake

Mari Yamaguchi & Haruka Nuga

TOMIOKA, JAPAN (AP) — Ten years after Japan’s earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster, the lives of many who survived are still on hold.

On March 11, 2011, one of the biggest temblors on record touched off a massive tsunami, killing more than 18,000 people and setting off catastrophic meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Nearly half a million people were displaced. Tens of thousands still haven’t returned home.

More than JPY30 trillion (USD280 billion) has been spent on reconstruction so far — but even Reconstruction Minister Katsuei Hirasawa acknowledged recently that while the government has charged ahead with new buildings, it has invested less in helping people to rebuild their lives, for instance, by offering mental health services for trauma.

The Associated Press talked to people affected by the disasters about how far they have come — and how much more needs to be done.

Yasuo Takamatsu, 64, lost his wife, Yuko, when the tsunami hit Onagawa, in Miyagi prefecture.

File photo shows Yasuo Takamatsu prepares to take a diving lesson at Takenoura bay, Miyagi prefecture, northern Japan. PHOTO: AP

He has been looking for her ever since.

He even got his diving licence to try to find her remains, and for seven years he has gone on weekly dives — 470 and counting.

“I’m always thinking that she may be somewhere nearby,” he said.

Besides his solo dives, once a month he joins local authorities as they conduct underwater searches for some 2,500 people whose remains are still unaccounted for across the region.

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 artefacts, but nothing that belonged to his wife.

He said he will keep searching for his wife “as long as my body moves”.

“In the last text message that she sent me, she said, ‘Are you okay? I want to go home’,” he said. “I’m sure she still wants to come home.”

Just a month after a tsunami as high as 17 metres smashed into the city of Rikuzentakata, Michihiro Kono took over his family’s soy sauce business.

That he was even able to continue the two-century-old business is a miracle, he said. The precious soy yeast was only saved because he had donated some to a university lab.

For the last decade, Kono has worked to rebuild the business in Iwate prefecture, and later this year he will finish construction on a new factory, replacing the one that was destroyed, on the same ground where his family started making soy sauce in 1807. He has even launched a soy sauce named ‘Miracle’ in honour of the saved yeast.

“This is a critical moment to see if I can do something meaningful in the coming 10 years,” said the ninth-generation owner of Yagisawa Shoten Co. “I was born here, and now I’m at the starting line again.”

But challenges remain: His customer base has been decimated. The city’s population has plunged more than 20 per cent to about 18,000, so he is trying to build business networks beyond the city.

Kono often thinks of the people killed by the tsunami, many of whom he used to discuss town revitalisation plans with. “Those folks all wanted to make a great town, 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.

About 10 kilometres south of the wrecked nuclear plant, rice farmer Naoto Matsumura defied a government evacuation order a decade ago and stayed on his farm to protect his land and the cattle abandoned by neighbours.

He’s still there.

Most of the town of Tomioka re-opened in 2017. But dozens of neighbouring homes around Matsumura are still empty, leaving the area pitch dark at night.

The Fukushima prefecture town’s main train station got a facelift. A new shopping centre was built. But less than 10 per cent of Tomioka’s former population of 16,000 has returned after massive amounts of radioactive material spewing from the plant forced evacuations from the town and other nearby areas. Parts of the town remain off-limits; houses and shops stand abandoned.

“It took hundreds of years of history and effort to build this town, and it was destroyed instantly,” he said. “I grew up here… but this is nothing like a home anymore.”

Because it took six years to lift the evacuation order, many townspeople already found jobs and homes elsewhere. Half of the former residents say they have decided never to return, according to a town survey.

This has been true across the region.

In Tomioka, radioactive waste from decontamination efforts in the town are still stored in a no-go zone.

“Who wants to come back to a place like this?” Matsumura asked. “I don’t see much future for this town.”

For company, Matsumura has several cows, a pony and a family of hunting dogs that help him chase away wild animals. The cows are descendants of those from neighbouring farms that he has kept, as a protest, after the government issued an order to destroy thousands because of radiation fears.

This spring, for the first time since the disaster, the 62-year-old farmer plans an experimental rice planting, and to expand his beekeeping efforts.

“I will stay here until the end of my life,” he said.