5 Japanese Residents Speak of ‘Recovery of People’s Hearts’ 10 Years After Quake

March 18, 2021 Updated: March 18, 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 temblors on record touched off a massive tsunami, killing more than 18,000 people and setting off catastrophic meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Nearly half a million people were displaced. Tens of thousands still haven’t returned home.

More than 30 trillion yen (US$280 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; for instance, by offering mental health services for trauma.

Epoch Times Photo
Michihiro Kono, president of Yagisawa Shoten Co., stands at a his factory under construction Friday, March 5, 2021, in Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, northern Japan. (Eugene Hoshiko/AP)

The Associated Press talked to people affected by the disasters about how far they have come—and how much more needs to be done.

“As long as my body moves”

Yasuo Takamatsu, 64, lost his wife, Yuko, when the tsunami hit Onagawa, in Miyagi prefecture.

He has been looking for her ever since.

He even got his diving license 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.

Epoch Times Photo
Yasuo Takamatsu prepares to take a diving lesson at Takenoura bay, Miyagi prefecture, northern Japan. (Koji Ueda/AP)

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

Takamatsu 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 artifacts, but nothing that belonged to his wife.

He said he will keep searching for his wife “as long as my body moves.”

“In the last text message that she sent me, she said, ‘Are you okay? I want to go home,’” he said. “I’m sure she still wants to come home.”

“Starting line again”

Just a month after a tsunami as high as 17 meters (55 feet) smashed into the city of Rikuzentakata, Michihiro Kono took over his family’s soy sauce business.

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

For the last decade, Kono has worked to rebuild the business 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 honor of the saved yeast.

Epoch Times Photo
Michihiro Kono, president of Yagisawa Shoten Co., holds his company’s soy sauce bottle, named “the miracle,” at his company’s new headquarters in Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, northeastern Japan. (Eugene Hoshiko/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 Yagisawa Shoten Co. “I was born here, and now I’m at the starting line again.”

But challenges remain: His customer base has been decimated. The city’s population has plunged more than 20 percent to about 18,000, so he is trying to build business networks beyond the city.

Kono often thinks of the people killed by the tsunami, many of whom he used to discuss town revitalization plans with.

“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.

“Who wants to come back?”

About 10 kilometers (6 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 neighbors.

He’s still there.

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

Epoch Times Photo
Naoto Matsumura speaks during an interview with The Associated Press at his farm land in Tomioka town, Fukushima prefecture, northeastern Japan, Friday, Feb. 26, 2021. About 10 kilometers (6 miles) south of the wrecked Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, rice farmer Matsumura defied a government evacuation order and stayed on his farm to protect his land the cattle abandoned by neighbors a decade ago. (Hiro Komae/AP)

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

“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 anymore.”

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.

Epoch Times Photo
Naoto Matsumura pets his dogs during an interview with The Associated Press at his farm land in Tomioka town, Fukushima prefecture, northeastern Japan, Friday, Feb. 26, 2021. (Hiro Komae/AP)

This has been true 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?” Matsumura asked. “I don’t see much future for this town.”

For company, Matsumura has several cows, a pony, and a family of hunting dogs that help him chase away wild boars. The cows are descendants of those from neighboring farms that he has kept, as a protest, after the government issued an order to destroy thousands because of radiation fears.

This spring, for the first time since the disaster, the 62-year-old farmer plans an experimental rice planting, and to expand his beekeeping efforts.

“I will stay here until the end of my life,” he said.

“Their home is still here”

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 team, is in his first year working at the Tomioka town hall—but he still hasn’t returned to live in the town, joining the many who commute into it from outside.

Epoch Times Photo
Yuya Hatakeyama, a Tomioka town official, speaks during an interview with The Associated Press as he guides reporters in a “difficult-to-return” zone in Tomioka town, Fukushima prefecture, northeastern Japan, Friday, Feb. 26, 2021. (Hiro Komae/AP)

Hatakeyama has bittersweet memories of Tomioka. The area that’s 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,” Hatakeyama said. One day, he said, he wants to see young families playing catch, like he used to do with his father.

“A place of comfort”

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

She’s 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.

Epoch Times Photo
Hazuki Sato, a Futaba town official, walks around an elementary school she used to attend until she evacuated due to a nuclear scare following a 2011 earthquake, during an interview with The Associated Press in Futaba town, Fukushima prefecture, northeastern Japan, Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021. (Hiro Komae/AP)

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

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.

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

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

Share your stories with us at emg.inspired@epochtimes.com, and continue to get your daily dose of inspiration by signing up for the Epoch Inspired newsletter at TheEpochTimes.com/newsletter