Against Forgetting

Rikuzentakata mayor Toba Futoshi bows in prayer at a makeshift altar in the entrance to what was city hall. Across the wasteland of this once-vibrant coastal city stand a few other buildings—a library, a gymnasium, a police station—similarly gutted by the tsunami, similarly housing altars in their entrance.

The altars, made of ordinary tables with some incense for prayer, hold the offerings of friends and family who have come to mourn: flowers, some fruit, a glass of sake, pictures. A fireman’s helmet sits on one.

Hours earlier, on lunch break during the city assembly meeting, Mayor Toba calmly recounted the minutes as the tsunami tore into the city. City hall employees ran out to the street to try to help people flee, especially the elderly. They raced up the stairs to the roof of city hall, a three-storey building. They watched in horror and disbelief as the sixteen-meter wave destroyed the city, reaching all the way to their uncertain refuge there on the roof.

He talks in detail about the day his wife’s body was discovered, but gestures to the room outside his temporary office where his staff is diligently working, “Many of them have lost a family member, too.” There was no time, almost no excuse, for individual grief. One year later, they remain united in their pain, trying however they can to revive a city.

There are encouraging signs of life. Small businesses have reopened in prefabricated structures on higher ground, including a bookstore and a sake bar. Mr. Sato, director of the temporary shelters built in the athletic field of Yonesaki elementary school, says that people try to use money locally, to stimulate what economy there is. He then points to planters among the housing units, “These were brought in so people could plant flowers and vegetables, to lend this place a better sense of home.” But where will they establish their eventual homes? Where will they work? The issues they face for the next several years must seem insurmountable at times.

And yet so much more the case for towns around the crippled Fukushima reactor. They remain ghost towns, except for former residents granted four hours to enter on specified days. People check in on businesses that may never reopen. They visit family graves. Some, having succumbed to the stress of an uprooted life, are given funerals at those graves.

The government may be drawing up resettlement plans, but how many residents are really going to move back? Who would trust claims of decontamination or safe radiation levels from a government that, we know now, lied about the severity of the disaster in its aftermath? And even if residents do move back, who will buy products from this largely agricultural area? Youth may never return. And so, neither will the future.

In the northern half of Minamisoma city that lies outside the exclusion zone, the illusion of normal life persists, but a similar demographic crisis deepens. Dr. Oikawa Tomoyoshi, of Minamisoma City Hospital, monitors radiation exposure and says he doesn’t believe the levels he sees in his patients will have any long-term adverse effects. He notes, “Much bigger health concerns are smoking, drinking too much, poor diet… and lack of proper access to health care.” He is alluding to the mass departure of health care workers from the area, coerced by spouses who are saying, in effect, “Sure, you say we are safe, but why take any chances with our children?” When residents see doctors and nurses leaving in droves, what are they to think? More and more, the elderly stay behind, with nowhere else to go.

Even before the disaster, aging populations and the exodus of youth for big cities was a problem endemic to rural Japan, these Tohoku towns and cities included. Their leaders now face unenviable challenges with perhaps inevitable conclusions. Irradiated towns may collapse, their abandoned buildings and homes falling into ruin—all of it, a reminder of the repercussions of such human folly as that which transpired at the nuclear reactors.

The bleakness Tohoku’s coastal towns face will be even greater if the public forgets them. Despite the apparent hopelessness of some areas, forgetting seems like a moral failure. In Rikuzentakata, Toba and his staff almost seem to be working against forgetting. That, they know, will herald the onset of despair. And that will not have been caused by an earthquake, a tsunami or a nuclear disaster.

For further information (including details about donations and volunteer opportunities):
Rikuzentakata homepage:
Minamisoma homapage:




勇気づけられる兆しはいくつか見えている。書店や飲み屋などが高台に建てられた小さなプレハブの仮設店舗で営業を再開している。佐藤氏は米崎小学校の校庭に建てられた仮設住宅の責任者で、そこで暮らす人たちが一生懸命にお金を地元の復興のために使おうとしている現状を説明してくれた。また彼は仮設住宅の敷地内で花や野菜の苗を植えている人たちを指しながら、「この殺風景な仮設住宅が少しでも暮らしやすくなるように彼らも努力しています」と説明してくれた。しかし仮設住宅での生活をいつまで続けなければならないのか? 仕事は見つかるのか? これらの深刻な問題は被災者たちに重くのしかかっている。



南相馬市の北側半分は立ち入り禁止区域の外にあるにもかかわらず人口が激減している。南相馬市立病院の及川友好医師は患者たちの放射線被ばく量を調査しているが、彼のところにやってくる患者たちから検出される程度の放射線量が将来的に何らかの健康被害を及ぼすとは思えない、と述べている。「喫煙、過度の飲酒、偏った食事、そして間違った健康管理などのほうがはるかに有害です」という。医療従事者たちが例えば妻から「私たちは大丈夫でもこの子らの将来は安心できないわよ」と説得されて、どんどんこの町を離れている現状を同医師は心配している。医者や看護師たちが逃げ出すような町に誰が安心して住むことが出来るだろう? あとに残るのは行き先のないお年寄りだけだ。



Share and Enjoy:     These icons link to social bookmarking sites where readers can share and discover new web pages.
  • Digg
  • StumbleUpon
  • Reddit
  • Google Bookmarks
  • Facebook
  • MySpace
  • Propeller
  • Technorati
  • TwitThis

Comments are closed.