To mark the anniversary of Japan’s 2011 triple disaster, the Guardian met six people whose courage and determination have inspired other people across the disaster-hit region. From the mayor of a radiation-hit city who refused to leave, to a traumatised fisherman who now looks after his elderly neighbours — ordinary people who, in a few terrifying minutes, saw their lives transformed by catastrophe.
On 11 March 2011 a powerful earthquake and tsunami struck the north-east coast of Japan and triggered a triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
Almost 19,000 people died in the tsunami, while 160,000 people fled radiation in Fukushima. Five years on, more than 174,000 survivors remain displaced, including almost 100,000 people from Fukushima who have yet to return to their homes.
But there are signs, too, that for some people life is returning to a semblance of normality.
It comes as little surprise to hear that Katsunobu Sakurai rarely looks out of his office window these days.
Five years ago he watched from the same window as massive tsunami waves crashed through rows of pine trees before tearing up farmland and homes in Minamisoma.
Sakurai had been the city’s mayor for just a few months when the disaster killed almost 500 of his constituents. The death toll, however, was just the beginning of Minamisoma’s agony. When the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, 25km (16 miles) south of the city centre, went into meltdown, all but 9,000 of Minamisoma’s 71,000 residents voted with their feet, leaving behind a ghost town bereft of people and essential services.
While his city ground to a halt, Sakurai stayed put. Clearly exhausted, he took to YouTube on 24 March 2011 to issue a plea for help, subtitled in English, that reverberated around the world.
Five years later the city’s population has recovered to around 57,000 and preparations are being made to allow residents to return to the abandoned neighbourhood closest to the nuclear plant.
Yet the community is far from normal. Many mothers and their children have stayed away, and the city’s kindergartens are half empty — even though, as Sakurai points out, radiation levels in the city are now lower than those in Rome.
Last year Sakurai was re-elected in a landslide, while other local leaders were turfed out by voters who believe they have bungled their communities’ recovery. “I stayed even after everyone else had left,” said Sakurai, who credits his samurai ancestors with giving him the determination to carry on. “I think people appreciated that.”
There is still much work to be done. Just over half of the city’s 23,000 households have been decontaminated — a huge undertaking that is expected to cost as much as US$400 million. “It’s a good job that Japan is rich enough to do all of this,” he said, with obvious mischief.
His sense of humour disappeared when talk turned to the operator of the Fukushima plant, Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO). “My attitude towards TEPCO hasn’t changed,” he said. “And the way TEPCO goes about things hasn’t changed either. They simply won’t take full responsibility for what they’ve done.”
Despite the challenges, Sakurai, a veteran marathon runner, has witnessed the city’s slow ascent from despair during his regular runs. “We still have a long way to go,” he said. “But life today is heaven compared to the hell of March 2011.”
One of the most poignant images of the immediate aftermath of the Japan disaster was of a bent and rusting sign pointing to the shattered remains of the Suisen Shuzo sake brewery in Rikuzentakata.
But for Suisen, regarded as one of Japan’s best sake brewers, the tragedy of the tsunami had only just begun, as it became clear that nine of the brewery’s 57 employees had died.
“When my father told the surviving staff a few days later that we would brew sake again, we knew he wasn’t just putting on a brave face,” said Yasuaki Konno, the son of Suisen’s president, Yasuhiko Konno.
True to Konno senior’s word, within months the firm was producing sake at the premises of a rival brewer, Iwate Meijo — one of countless examples of companies coming to the aid of stricken competitors after the disaster.
Now, with the help of government aid and donations from customers determined to resurrect their local brewer, Suisen is again making premium-quality sake at its new premises on a hill overlooking the nearby port of Ofunato. In 2014 it entered the US market with its first overseas brand, Kibo, which means “hope”.
“We’re originally a Rikuzentakata company but the water there was no longer good enough to produce sake,” said Yuki Murakami, a manager at Suisen, which formed 70 years ago after a merger between eight smaller breweries. The firm employs fewer staff, and production is at about 40% of pre-disaster levels.
For now, though, just the ability to turn rice into Japan’s national drink is enough for Yasuaki Konno. “We were about to start shipping out that year’s supply which we had made during the winter,” he said of the events of five years ago. “When I went back the next day and saw what had happened to the brewery, I couldn’t take it in.”
Konno, who oversees the production of about 20 Suisen sake labels, said the brewery owed it to its customers to rebuild. “If we’d given up it would have been another piece of bad news for the town and our customers, many of whom had lost their homes.
He concedes that Suisen’s sake may have undergone subtle changes in taste due to its new premises. “Sake is not just a product — it’s an incredibly complex drink,” he said. “We’re still in the early stages of recovery, and it could be another 10 years before we’re truly out of the woods.
“But nothing can ever be as bad as the situation we found ourselves in five years ago. If we can get through that, we can get through anything.”
Strange as it may sound, Kazuo Sato considers himself one of the lucky ones.
He lost his home in the tsunami that killed 1,700 people in his hometown of Rikuzentakata, but he, his wife, their three children, and his own parents survived. A former fishermen, he was left too traumatised to go back out to sea.
Today they all live in the same temporary housing complex in the grounds of a local junior high school that once served as an evacuation shelter.
Other couples with children have secured loans and moved on, leaving behind the Sato family and 100 or so residents whose average age is over 60; several are in their late 90s.
Sato’s 78-year-old father, Kichiro, is mending fishing nets in preparation for his first trip back out to sea since the tsunami, in search of whitebait. Before the disaster, the father and son would have gone fishing together. But the younger Sato won’t be joining his father this spring.
“I was a fisherman before the disaster,” said Sato, 50. “I tried to continue after the tsunami, but I kept having flashbacks and it was affecting me psychologically. I watched the tsunami arrive from the hillside, so I could see people trying to escape and hear their screams for help. But there was nothing I could do.”
Instead, Sato reinvented himself as a community leader, and now divides his time between chairing the residents’ association and working as a voluntary firefighter. He also helps the Sakura Line project to plant cherry blossoms in areas considered safe from tsunami.
His office at the top of a hill overlooking the temporary housing has become the first point of contact for residents with complaints about everything from leaky roofs to lack of privacy. On occasion he plays the role of peacemaker.
“There is no privacy here, which adds to people’s problems,” said Sato, who blames the stress of life as a displaced survivor for the minor stroke he suffered last year, aged just 49. “We often have to defuse arguments caused by complaints about noisy neighbours, or after people have had too much to drink.”
As the exodus of younger people continues, Sato’s biggest concern is the welfare of elderly neighbours who live alone, amid a recent rise in the number of solitary deaths in the disaster-hit region.
“We ask people to keep their doors unlocked so we can get inside quickly if we think something is wrong,” he said. Despite the cramped conditions inside poorly constructed prefab units, Sato says he is prepared to wait until he can raise enough money to build his family a new, permanent home.
“We live at the end of a row of units and our neighbours recently moved out, so we have more privacy. Compared with what many people have to put up with, we’re lucky.”
Masaaki Shimanuki’s professional wishlist sounds much like that of any other doctor: new equipment, bigger premises, more staff.
But on the afternoon of 11 March 2011 the 73-year-old’s troubles were of an altogether different magnitude.
Shimanuki, a doctor in the internal medicine department at Iwate Prefectural Takata hospital in the coastal town of Rikuzentakata, was in his consulting room when he felt the ground begin to shake.
The biggest earthquake in Japan’s recorded history had just struck the north-east coast, generating a huge tsunami that would reach Rikuzentakata just over 30 minutes later.
“Our priority was to help get our patients out of danger,” Shimanuki said during a break at the town’s only major hospital — a prefabricated replacement that was built on higher ground after the disaster. “We moved them up to the fourth floor, but even that wasn’t high enough.”
As the water level continued to rise, the only place left to take refuge was the hospital roof. By nightfall 11 of the hospital’s 51 patients – most of them elderly – had died, including four who succumbed to freezing temperatures on the roof. Nine staff also died.
Today, dozens of patients – all wearing obligatory flu masks – line the corridor outside Shimanuki’s office just minutes after the hospital has opened.
On a typical day the hospital’s five on-duty doctors and 30 nurses see 170 people, about a quarter of whom are still living in temporary housing.
Medical and administrative workers barely have time to draw breath; as soon as Shimanuki sees one patient, another joins the end of the queue. But in its organised chaos, Takata is at last beginning to resemble an ordinary hospital again.
“We never thought about giving up, even during those dreadful days after the tsunami,” Shimanuki said. “We received so much help from outside that we had no choice but to carry on. But if there is one thing I could have right now, it would be more doctors and nurses.”
Five years ago Jun Sasaki could have been forgiven for banishing all thoughts of returning to the sea to make a living.
After steering his boat back to port moments before the tsunami careered into the tiny fishing village of Koishihama, the fisherman and his family watched helplessly as the waves destroyed his scallop beds.
In a matter of minutes he had lost 1,000 tonnes of scallops, worth an estimated 50m yen (£311,000/US$440,000).
“When I saw the tsunami withdraw back out to sea, I knew that it had taken all of my scallops with it,” said the 45-year-old, who was born and raised in the area.
Like so many people who lost their businesses in March 2011, Sasaki had no choice but to embrace the philanthropic spirit that would help his and other fishing communities through their darkest hours.
Within days 400 volunteer divers were working in shifts to clear the seabed of debris so Koishihahama could quickly rebuild its aquaculture industry. The Kizuna Foundation, a non-profit business launched after the disaster, offered financial help.
“It was like getting a gentle push in the back, carrying us along,” said Sasaki, who by 2014 was producing as many scallops as he had done before the disaster. Now, he says, the water in the bay is even cleaner than it was before 11 March.
The village, framed by pine-covered cliffs, is attempting to attract more tourists through its famed oysters, scallops and sea pineapples.
“Fishermen all over the region are getting old, so we need to find other ways to keep the local economy going,” said Sasaki, who is head of the village’s 12-member scallop fishermen’s union. “We want this to be a place that attracts people who love great seafood.”
Inspired by the post-disaster volunteer effort, he obtained a diver’s licence so he could remove what little debris is left, and keep a closer eye on his livelihood.
“I love getting into the water now, even after what happened in 2011,” he said. “I can see the scallops for myself … and it goes without saying that they are the best in the world.”
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