Sendai, Ishinomaki, Fukushima, Minami-Soma, Iitate; places I would not have been able to place on a map before last year, but which now echo with a peculiar resonance. Ever since March 11 last year, they have been weighed down by connotations of death, destruction and radiation--an unfortunate image that will be hard to shake.
Now, however, they are inching toward rebirth and reconstruction, although the radiation cannot be cleared as easily as the tsunami rubble. Before I embarked on a series of trips to the area, I was aware that the view from Tokyo would be necessarily distorted by distance; but I didn’t realize quite how messy and confusing things would get on the ground.
The importance of perspective was hammered home by the enormous diversity of opinions and feelings that I encountered--bringing to life the Japanese phrase “junin toiro,” which means “10 people, 10 colors,” or “to each his own.”
For example, while I see losing a loved one as the worst pain imaginable, people discuss their suffering in degrees. One woman in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, told me her father had been washed away in front of her eyes, but she was glad to have found his body. Others said the pain of losing their homes was ameliorated by having their families still around them.
The degree that the tsunami and nuclear crisis each matter to people also depends on who you speak to. To farmers evacuated from their homes in Iitate and towns within the exclusion zone in Fukushima Prefecture, the nuclear disaster is the most significant event, and it plays heavily on their minds. Yet, while some parents have fled the prefecture and even the country, British father John Loynes told me that he thought he was lucky to live next to a nuclear plant that was being decommissioned, because it’s safer than living next to a plant that is still operating. And for many in Miyagi and Iwate prefectures--particularly those who lost family, friends and their homes--radiation is the least of their worries.
Radiation fears may have sent shock waves through parents in Tokyo and neighboring prefectures, but those who chose to stay in Fukushima are almost scornful of those who worry about the comparatively low levels beyond their prefecture.
The workers said that they only ever talked in about dosages measured in millisieverts, while others fuss about microsieverts, which are a thousand times smaller. A mother in Minami-Soma, Fukushima Prefecture, also said that she thought people outside of the prefecture were overreacting to the relatively low levels in their towns--“If you think that’s high, how about us up here?” she asked, seemingly affronted.
An English teacher in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture, said she would alter her account of the disaster depending on who she was speaking to; when she wanted her parents to stop worrying, she played down the disaster. Conversely, when friends assume that it wasn’t that bad, she tells them, “Oh, you don’t know what it was like!”
And we don’t. Those who do know a lot more than me or anyone else who has been watching events unfold over the last year from a distance are the long-term volunteers, several of whom I met in Ishinomaki.
It was talking to them that I first realized how tough life must still be for hundreds of thousands of people. Much of the media tries to focus on positive and uplifting stories, which are important for morale. But they also gloss over the many grievances that people still have; in reality, special events such as barbecues or a celebrity’s visit do not alleviate the pain of everyday life, grieving and living in a kind of limbo. In Ishinomaki, an American nurse told me, they’re down to 10 suicides a month. It’s shocking that in a city with a population of just 160,000 that 10 is considered an improvement.
Again, it’s a matter of perspective.
Until I visited a few temporary housing units, I had never really considered what a drastic change it represented for people. Living in Tokyo, I’m used to seeing cramped rooms; one of my previous bedrooms was 4.5 tatami mats, the same size as some living rooms in the temporary units. But in the countryside, people have much more spacious houses. Seeing Takashi Owada, a farmer from Iitate (a village evacuated because of high radiation levels) sit in his 4.5-tatami-mat living room, stuffed full of furniture,, I realized how tough the adjustment must have been from his previous life in the great outdoors, herding cows and cultivating crops in the fields. They’re also not used to living in such close proximity with others: “You have to creep around so you don’t bother your neighbors, keep your television on low at night. It’s a pain,” an old woman told me.
Owada did not sugarcoat his situation, and is not hopeful about the future. He would like to farm again, but thinks that will be impossible in Iitate. For now he feels like he is in limbo, waiting for the government to decontaminate his village and to determine whether they can or can’t go back--and if they can’t, then he will look into moving elsewhere.
Those who did not move into temporary housing have their own grievances. I heard rumors in Minami-Soma that some people were moved into the government-funded units because their homes had high levels of radiation. After receiving compensation, they then moved back into their old homes--whereas those who chose not to evacuate did not receive compensation.
Stories such as these made me realize that although the physical mess has mostly been cleared up, the metaphorical mess--compensation, decontamination, rampant unemployment and economic decline, not to mention the emotional and psychological wounds--is not so easily cleared up.
Once again, however, it’s a matter of perspective.
To one government minister, the exclusion zone around the plant was a “town of death”; to the patrons of a raucous bar I went to in Minami-Soma, half of which is in the zone, the place is as fun and rowdy as it ever was. The bartender, Kenji, was born in Nagoya and had lived in Tokyo for 10 years, and said he simply felt compelled to come back to Minami-Soma. Despite the population slump, he said something I heard over and over again: “I just love this town.”
So if there’s a lot of sadness, there is also joy; if life has been turned upside down, there is also a sense of normality returning. But things will never be the same again.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Three intrepid reporters from The Asahi Shimbun AJW recently traversed the areas devastated by last year's March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant to provide personal accounts from survivors and live coverage of the one-year memorial services. Here are their personal recollections from behind the scenes.
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