I’m in a car with Odaka resident Yuko Hirohato driving across a low lying area of her hometown. She is taking us to the place of safety she ran to on March 11th 2011 to escape the Great East Japan Earthquake tsunami, up a low hill to near where an old shrine overlooks the ocean. A few minutes ago I, my wife and our guide Karin Taira were chatting and laughing with town residents in the community centre that Yuko-san helps to run. The talk had been of positivity, of the power of hope and laughter and resilience, of building a new community.
But now alone in the car with Yuko the mood has shifted. Karin is driving my wife in the car behind, and I am working my poor Japanese as best I can.
‘The tsunami was four metres here,’ Yuko says raising a hand from the wheel and gesturing far above the roof of her car. ‘Four metres.’ Her face, bright with humour a few minutes ago, clearly grappling with the emotional intensity of what she witnessed seven years ago almost to the day. ‘Many neighbours drowned.’
‘Sumimasen,’ I say, trying to excuse the clumsy nature of the question I’m about to ask: ‘But what sound did the tsunami make?’
For a moment I think Yuko-san hasn’t understood me, but then she makes a fist of that free hand, and gradually, inexorably pushes it forward in a slow-motion punch, and makes a noise that’s hard to transliterate. Something like a huge express train grinding forwards: ‘DDDDDOOOOOOOOUUUUUUUUUUUFFFFF.’
After a pause I ask: ‘And what do you think about the sea now?’
‘I used to like it,’ she says wistfully.
‘Dai kirai. I hate it.’
To the left of us the new sea walls are ramping up against any future massive tsunami, but Yuko thinks they may not be high enough . . .
Our visit to the area had started with hiring a car in Fukushima City and driving on Route 114 towards Namie and Odaka. Slowly the traffic had thinned until, for long empty stretches, we were the only vehicle on the road. The 114 is open to traffic now, but is a strictly no-stopping, no pedestrian road through the current Evacuation Zone. After passing a checkpoint some 20kms from the coast suddenly each and every side road was blocked by metal barriers. Front yards and driveways of the houses we passed were overgrown, cars immobilised – a score of signs warn drivers to take care and not skid off the road. Apart from an occasional workman, and a car or two coming in the other direction the only other thing moving was a monkey loping across the road. It felt like we were entering something unsettling, vaguely familiar from numerous films and TV dramas with post-apocalyptic settings. But this was real.
In Namie Town, recently re-designated as safe to return and now just outside the Zone proper, the atmosphere is strange. Only 400 or so of the town’s 21,000 inhabitants have returned to date, and the empty houses far more evident than those showing signs of life.
But Karin’s friendly smile and greeting as we parked outside Odaka Station was reassuring. She suggested we start with a visit to the town’s ‘pop-up’ community centre – ‘Odaka Platform Home’ – where we could talk to Yuko-san and other returned residents, and get an idea of the scale and variety of problems that the town has faced. Warmly welcomed to the the centre – and talking about everything from Harry Potter to the plight of local schools – the complexity and variety of trauma brought about by this unprecedented triple disaster soon became much clearer. Every response and experience is different: some struggling more with the trauma of witnessing the tsunami, some more focussed on the radiation, the future. The nature of the Evacuation Zone has meant many parts of these neighbourhoods have remained frozen in time close to 3.11, whereas other parts of the Tohoku coastline have moved on.
One thing everyone agreed – each time they hear about a neighbour returning to Odaka it is a source of joy. And the Platform Home certainly felt very homely . . .
Taking our leave of Yuko-san on the hillside above the inundation zone, we start the tour proper with Karin. Our first stop, amidst the excavators and construction truck traffic building the new sea wall, is an area of Odaka Port virtually wiped out by the tsunami. We park by a wrecked, low industrial building, and take our first glance at the Safecast radiation reading: it’s measuring ‘blue’ no more than 1 micro Sievert per hour and we start to explore.
The sky has clouded over, and a cold wind is blowing the weeds that partially hide foundations where houses once stood. I had been thinking of this more as a radiation disaster around Fukushima Daiichi, but the scale of tsunami damage is starting to dawn on us. It is only when we mount a nearby viewing tower though that we get a true sense of the devastation: with our backs to the sea we can survey the whole of the port area. An aerial photograph from before the disaster shows this part of town crammed with houses, but looking up there is nothing to see but an occasional, solitary damaged building, and the ever-present construction lorries. Chastened, we get back in Karin’s car and move on along a small coastal road dodging construction traffic, edging closer all the time to the stricken reactor and the current Evacuation Zone.
Our next stop is Ukedo Elementary School, its stark, once proud modernist architecture standing broken and empty behind high wire fencing, the ocean vaguely audible just two hundred metres or so beyond. Karin points out the clock high on the school tower, frozen at around 3.40pm, the moment when the monster tsunami cut the power supply. Empty shoe shelves are visible just inside the main front door, the entire lower level scoured clean by the tsunami. Moving along the fence she points out the high tide line high on the second floor, silent testimony to the height of the wave here. Miraculously all the children at Ukedo School survived, with staff and children running through earthquake damage to a low hill some 2 kms away . . . but the gutted and stained building, the weeds, the silence is still haunting.
We move on, Karin answering our questions, showing the radiation reading now and then as it creeps higher. Overhead a signboard gives the current level in micro Sieverts – more or less what our Safecast device is measuring. As we head back into the zone along Route 6, more and more damage and neglect is evident as we pass shuttered shops, abandoned garages, empty houses. Turning from Route 6 into Okuma Town we have our passports and car registration checked against a list of permissions to enter the full evacuation zone. Beyond that the change is noticeable: whereas on the no-stopping routes there is traffic, suddenly here the road is empty. We drive slowly down the street, through the usual cluttered Japanese townscape of vending machines, convenience stores, the mesh of overhead wires, small houses – but everything changed by the stillness and silence. Weeds, blanched by winter, crack through the pavements and tarmac. Rubbish, so unusual in Japan, lies in small drifts in doorways and kerbsides.
We pause at a Family Mart, transformed from the mundane into something from a disaster movie, its wares and contents scattered across the floor, a stack of newspapers in the open doorway still boldly showing the date 3.11. We drive a short way further, and then get out to walk down the main street. It is a real ghost town here, frozen in time by the radiation, nature slowly reclaiming buildings and parked cars. (Every car we see in the zone has flat tires – something strangely unsettling about that . . .) We walk in silence, taking photographs and short video clips as we pass buildings that were once homes and businesses, full of life – and suddenly the full impact of the radiation and evacuation order really hit home. Lives interrupted abruptly and changed forever. A glance at the Safecast reading tells us why – the radiation is now significantly higher, still within what Karin has forecast we will experience, but there is a lot of clear up work to be done evidently until readings here match those in re-opened Odaka and Tomioka. The scene is familiar from TV and newspaper reports, but it is an utterly different experience to walk through it for real. As we get in the car and move back towards Route 6 we see just two other signs of life: a crossing light flashing needlessly on the the otherwise empty street. And then, beyond the crossing, a fox slipping silently from the shadows on one side of the road and into deeper shadow on the other.
Exiting this part of the zone we re-cross Route 6, pass through another checkpoint gate, and with dusk gathering head closer to the plant itself, past huge areas set aside for ‘mid-term’ storage piled high with bagged radiated topsoil and general clean up. The counter peaks as we pass these and we feel glad to keep moving . . .
Climbing a low hill covered in pine we round a corner and sweep up a driveway to perhaps the most unsettling part of the visit: Sun Light Okuma, an abandoned old people’s care home perched above the power plant. Apart from the now familiar sight of flat-tired cars and winter weeds, there is something very moving about the signs of the hurried evacuation of the facility. A stretcher in the main doorway, overturned chairs and discarded shoes visible inside, all evidence of the haste with which the elderly residents had to be moved. So poignant the thought that a once desirable last home for so many became a place to flee in fear. We linger for a moment gazing at the stricken reactors in the mid-distance below us, and then hustle back to our car and chase back down the hill to make the 5pm deadline for leaving the checkpoint.
Karin takes us to one last port of call as the evening draws on. Outside the police station in Tomioka, a memorial has been created from the crushed remains of a police car, swept away by the tsunami and lodged under a bridge as the police officers tried to warn residents of the incoming disaster. One body was retrieved some 30kms from the bridge, the other never found. A kendo practice sword belonging to one of the officers rests on the mangled wreckage, fresh flowers from the recent anniversary contrasting with the twisted metal. It is a very sombre moment, and I can’t shake it in the brightly lit, re-opened supermarket that we briefly visit afterwards, and as we drive home talking politics and the bigger questions that our visit has raised.
But what we ultimately take form our tour of the disaster area – apart from a glimpse of the full magnitude of what has been experienced here – is a profound sense of resilience and strength and determination in the people we meet. Yes, you can sense the loss and anger and grief and PTSD that so many carry – and, yes, obviously those choosing to return are in a way self-selecting – but we come away from so many conversations feeling lifted and inspired.
After nightfall we walk through the still quiet, empty spaces of Odaka to one of the two restaurants open at night, and have sushi dinner with Karin and Tomoko Kobayashi who runs the recently reopened Futabaya Ryokan with her husband Takenori. Tomoko-san speaks of the determination she had to revisit the abandoned family-owned inn as soon as possible, and bring it back to life. Of how she planted flowers the length of her street to bring back some colour to the town because there was none to be seen. Of her journey to understand the radiation and ways to recover, a journey that has taken her to Chernobyl in the Ukraine. With a detour past ghost stories, we talk of the future as much as the past, and her smile and energy are infectious. Later, cosy in the main room of the inn we watch videos and various creative responses to the disaster: from the work of now-resident photographer and artist Kazuto Sugeeta, to Yuko-san’s video of her tsunami experience, to a bar of soap, made by UK based ethical cosmetics company Lush using local rape seed. The plant absorbs caesium from the soil, but doesn’t transmit it to the seed: radioactive clear-up and useful product all in one, it is a great souvenir to take away.
And my mind goes back to being with Yuko-san on the hill above the inundation area. With the emotion clear in her face we had talked of her escape, and her antipathy towards the ocean. Her t-shirt bore the words ‘Remember 3.10’ – the day before the triple disaster unfolded. And then, to show that she was un-beaten by events, she suddenly grinned and performed a small, but determined jig of a dance for us.
Somehow that one moment summed up the whole visit perfectly.
Our heartfelt thanks to Karin Taira of Real Fukushima, and the people of Odaka who were so open and honest and welcoming.
– Julian Sedgwick
Julian Sedgwick is a UK based children’s writer and therapist.
Image credits: Julian and Isabel Sedgwick