Last March I had the sincere privilege of touring the Fukushima exclusion zone and surrounding communities with Mr. Sasaki. He was kind enough to take time out of his very busy schedule on fairly short notice to give me a very thoughtful and candid tour of the area and for this I am deeply appreciative. I quickly came to realize how lucky I was to receive a tour from someone who was both deeply embedded in the disaster response 7 years ago but is also currently part of the difficult and inspiring efforts to revitalize the surrounding community to its former glory.
As we made our way into the exclusion zone and through the abandoned communities and countryside, Mr. Sasaki shared fascinating and moving stories as someone who was an integral part of the heroic efforts to evacuate the surrounding area and the later disaster clean up. While we walked through the abandoned streets and peered into deserted businesses I was struck with how quickly a once vibrant community can be left in shambles.
I will never forget peering into the windows of the abandoned nursing home to see rows of neatly placed shoes – unmoved from when they were set seven years ago or walking through the laundromat still strewn with empty hampers and old newspapers. I learned that much of the abandoned buildings will be demolished over the next few years, making my visit feel extra special.
We even went to the site where the disaster response was originally headquartered, now located in a newly rebuilt community center. There, Mr.Sasaki recounted the dramatic and heart wrenching decisions that were made in the subsequent days after the tsunami as people were forced to evacuate and many lives were tragically lost. Shortly after the tsunami, the disaster headquarters itself had to be evacuated and was severely damaged by the tsunami and left to the elements for three years after the disaster. At the community center, I was able to put on a VR headset and see the wreckage of the disaster response headquarters as it was found those three years later, with white boards still covered in quickly scrawled notes and a few bento lunches still sitting half-eaten among the shards of broken glass.
Equally striking for me was how much progress the community has made since those fateful days only seven short years ago. Mr.Sasaki showed me the fascinating and monumental clean up efforts underway to mitigate the dwindling surrounding radiation risk. The system developed to contain the contaminated debris was the first of its kind and quite impressive. We also walked through newly built solar energy farms and newly sprouting townships. He spoke candidly of the cities’ ongoing efforts to dispel paranoia surrounding radiation in the area and to encourage regrowth. He showed me the newly reopened school, complete with its tiny (but gradually growing) cohort of 10 students. As we drove to the memorial commemorating those lost to the tsunami, we saw teams of volunteers repairing an old cemetery that was leveled in the flood. I felt my heart swell as I saw volunteers carefully repositioning markers and sweeping gravesites – deferentially respecting the past while boldly striving onward to the future.
After the tour, I had a lovely evening staying at Karin’s very comfortable guesthouse. We talked late into the evening about the area and the people in it. She had some very thoughtful insight to what happened and how the community has recovered since. She was very generous and I had a great time talking with her. She takes an obvious pride in the community and an active role in fostering its regrowth. She even let me try on a traditional kimono! I also had a tasty dinner set at the guesthouse just next door and had some great conversation with the couple that runs it. The gentleman there is also a talented artist and showed me some of his beautiful watercolors and described a trip he took to Ukraine to meet those affected by the Chernobyl Disaster.
In these short years, the community surrounding Fukushima has been innovative and tenacious in adapting to intense hardships, showing a level of resiliency that is deeply inspiring. I feel very fortunate to be able to meet the people affected by this disaster and witness the gradual re-emergence of their community.
Sara Marquis, Seattle, USA