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10 March 2021

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

10 March 2021

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 quakes on record touched off a massive tsunami, killing more than 18,000 people and setting off catastrophic meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

A restaurant in the no-go zone (AP)

Nearly half a million people were displaced, and tens of thousands still have not returned home.

More than 30 trillion yen (£201 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, such as offering mental health services for trauma.

Here is a closer look at the lives of people who survived the catastrophe, and how it continues to affect them 10 years on:

Yasuo Takamatsu (AP)

Yasuo Takamatsu, 64, is one of many people whose lives were shattered by the disaster.

He lost his wife, Yuko, when the tsunami hit Onagawa, in Miyagi prefecture. He has been looking for her ever since.

Mr Takamatsu obtained a 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.

Mr Takamatsu goes diving (AP)

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

He 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 Yuko “as long as my body moves”.

And he added: “In the last text message that she sent me, she said: ‘Are you okay? I want to go home.’

“I’m sure she still wants to come home.”

Michihiro Kono (AP)

Michihiro Kono has been rebuilding his family’s soy sauce business after a tsunami that reached 55ft smashed into the city of Rikuzentakata.

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

For the last decade, Mr Kono has worked to rebuild the company, Yagisawa Shoten, 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.

Soy sauce is made at Mr Kono's factory (AP)

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

But challenges remain. The city’s population has plunged more than 20% to about 18,000, so he is trying to build business networks beyond the city.

Mr Kono often thinks of the people killed by the tsunami, many of whom he used to talk to about town revitalisation plans.

“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.

Naoto Matsumura (AP)

About six miles 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 is still there.

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

The Fukushima prefecture town’s main train station got a facelift, and a new shopping centre was built. But less than 10% 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, and houses and shops stand abandoned.

A farmer with his dogs (AP)

“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 any more.”

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 trend has been apparent 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?” Mr Matsumura asked. “I don’t see much future for this town.”

Yuya Hatakeyama (AP)

Yuya Hatakeyama was 14 when he was forced to evacuate from Tomioka after the disaster.

Now 24, the former third baseman for the Fukushima Red Hopes, a regional professional league baseball team, is in his first year working at the Tomioka town hall – but he still has not returned to live in the town, joining the many who commute from outside.

Mr Hatakeyama has bittersweet memories of Tomioka. The area that is now a no-go zone includes Yonomori park, where people used to gather for a cherry blossom festival.

Decontamination work is being stepped up in the area and the town plans to lift the rest of the no-go zone in 2023.

“I want to reach out to the residents, especially the younger generation, so they know their home is still here,” Mr Hatakeyama said.

One day, he said, he wants to see young families playing catch, like he used to do with his father.

Hazuki Sato (AP)

Hazuki Sato was 10 when she fled from her elementary school in Futaba, home of the wrecked nuclear plant.

She is now preparing for the coming-of-age ceremony that is typical for Japanese 20-year-olds, hoping for a reunion in town so she can reconnect with her former classmates who have scattered.

Despite horrifying memories of escaping from her classroom, she still considers Futaba her home.

After studying outside the region for eight years, Ms Sato now works for her home town – though from an office in Iwaki, another city in the Fukushima prefecture.

A woman visits a playground (AP)

None of Futaba’s 5,700 residents can return to live there until 2022, when the town is expected to reopen partially.

An area outside a train station reopened last March only for a daytime visit to bring in the Olympic torch.

Ms Sato has fond memories of Futaba – a family barbecue, riding a unicycle after school and doing homework and snacking with friends at a childcare centre while waiting for her grandmother to pick her up.

“I want to see this town become a place of comfort again,” she said.

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