Reviewing the Great East Japan Earthquake (What are the thoughts of the staff?)

Aftermath of the Earthquake – The Case of Iwate Prefecture

Mr. S., who was the head of the Iwate Branch Youth Department of the Japan Epilepsy Association, died with his parents on the day of the tsunami. The association held a Rehabilitation Summer Camp every year at the Prefectural Outdoor Activity Center in Rikuzentakata City.  Mr. S. was preparing for the camp and was looking forward to welcoming members from the prefecture and the Tohoku region as well, before his untimely death.

In the early morning, we took a walk in the pine forests and along the sandy beaches by the seashore. At noon we went swimming and had a barbecue, and at night we enjoyed a campfire with fireworks. It was Mr. S. who prepared and welcomed us to that camp every year. His wife was Thai and their son was born there the December before the disaster.

After the earthquake, Iwate Prefecture established the “Iwate Learning Hope Fund” to provide scholarships to students from elementary school through university, that were affected by the disaster. This project is in the spirit of Mr. Inazo Nitobe, a professor at Sapporo Agricultural College, who more than 100 years ago established the Enyu Night School, offering free education to children who could not attend school for various reasons.

After confirming that Mr. S’s son was eligible for a scholarship from the “Iwate Learning Hope Fund,” we asked the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs to locate his wife and son there. Fortunately, we were able to meet the family in Bangkok, but due to communication issues, we needed to rely on many people to finalize the eligibility details regarding the scholarship. We pray that his father in heaven may be at peace.

Kyoko Yahaba, Director, Iwate Branch, Japan Epilepsy Association

We are living in history, as well.

Many people may wonder why patient groups repeatedly visit the areas affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake. And in actual fact, there is only so much we can physically do in the affected areas. Moreover, our words of encouragement and comfort may further upset the feelings of those who have been affected by the disaster. However, those of us who have experienced intractable diseases know this better than anyone else. Therefore, as we visited the affected areas several times, we realized that there are common troubles, sufferings and difficulties caused by calamity whether it is a natural disaster or an intractable disease.

What we can do, when we visit these areas, is to convey to as many people as possible the reality of the disaster area as seen through our “objective” eyes. This is also the driving force behind the Fukushima tours. People can be prejudiced and discriminatory about what they do not know or understand. A correct understanding is the first step to dispel such negativities and I think we can achieve that.

The accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant has had a major impact on global energy policies. While the objective is to reduce emissions of CO2, which is believed to be a cause of global warming, natural energy sources such as solar power have become significantly more prevalent over the past decade. The drop in the unit cost of electricity generation, which was considered a challenge, also spurred renewable energy.

Finally, I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to have been involved with the JPA’s Fukushima tour following the Great East Japan Earthquake, for nearly a decade, and as a member of the editorial board for the collection of records published this time.

Masaru Fujiwara

Reflecting on the Great East Japan Earthquake

I first visited the affected areas in 2017, six years after the disaster. Until then, most of the information I learned about the affected areas had come from TV and other media. I felt that the area was returning to a pre-earthquake scenario as infrastructure such as improved railroads and the resumption of various events in the area were happening. I could clearly see other changes, such as roads that were impassable year after year were now open and new buildings under construction. However, in other areas, time seems to have stood still since the day of the earthquake 10 years ago including half-destroyed houses, rusted out cars, closed schools and so on. My heart aches every time I recall the scenes of people who lived and went to school here before the earthquake, and how their normal daily lives were taken away from them.

Of course, my observations does not mean that I understand everything or that I am able to effect  change. However, as one who has seen the reality of the situation and has come into contact with the people in the affected areas and shared their thoughts and feelings, I will always be mindful of them.

Keita Ohtsubo, JPA Secretariat

The Great East Japan Earthquake recovery, during Covid-19

A politician recently compared Covid-19 to war, which makes sense from the perspective that the weak are the first to suffer including children, women and the infirm. With a single word from the prime minister, schools across the country closed, but no consultation with other parties was allowed before the policy was implemented. According to Article 29 of the School Education Law Enforcement Order, school holidays or closures are to be determined by the local boards of education, so the prime minister’s words should have been acknowledged as a strong request only. During the school closures, I volunteered at a private children’s daycare home, but I could hardly feel that the children’s needs were being heard or understood by the prime minister’s office. Similarly, the establishment and operation of evacuation centers and disaster public housing in the affected areas do not seem to be listening to the voices of tenants.

One of the most impressive changes over the past nine years has been the disappearance of the many piles of debris. I remember going from Ishinomaki to Onagawa, weaving my way through the debris on both sides. The 2013 tour showed a disposal plant and a pile of debris. That pile and the disposal plant are now gone. In 2012, there was a mass of burned cars in front of Sendai Airport, but by 2013, they were gone. I wondered how many years it would take to dispose of that much “debris,” but by 2014 it had almost all been removed. Debris in the off-limit area in Fukushima is not included in the Reconstruction Agency’s FY2018 statistics.

The second impressive observation was the giant seawall, which began to appear around 2016. I recall that in Yamada Town, Iwate Prefecture, it seemed so narrow when viewed from the top of the town hall that I wondered if it would be effective. Moreover, as I approached the seawall, I was surprised at its height, and I felt uneasy because the sea was not visible at all. Between Minamisoma and Sendai Port, there is a series of high seawalls reminiscent of the Great Wall of China, so the sea is still out of sight. The seawall at the fishing port of Himon, Kesennuma, will not be built as quickly, due to on going dialog with local residents regarding environmentally friendly construction concerns.

In 2015, after residents were allowed, we visited Mr. Sato’s home in Namie Town. I was impressed by the fact that the inside of the house remained as it was at the time of the disaster, with the calendar from March 2011 still intact. However, Mr. Sato has not yet moved back into the house. In Fukushima, in the off-limit area, time has also stood still since then.

I understand that a lot of restoration money is being spent in the affected areas. Even in Miyagi Prefecture, new highways and bridges are being built, making transportation more convenient. However, I often feel that other important vectors are not aligned. I wonder what can be done to improve this situation. I did have one notably, pleasant experience: a sake brewery that I visited before 3.11 but was swept away during the disaster, has re-opened in Namie. I hope there will be more frequent news like this.

Osamu Koseki, NPO Miyagi Patient Council

Column 1: Sutra reading at Mt. Hiwayama “Sorry for the delay. “

On March 11, 2011, when I saw a TV report of the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami coming into Sendai Airport from Yuriage Beach, I was reminded of the time when I landed at Sendai Airport some 40 years ago with my two-month-old son that had an incurable disease and was to be hospitalized at Tohoku University Hospital. I was told that he would only live six months, but thanks to the three surgeries performed in Sendai he survived until five years old.

Consequently, the day after the earthquake, I wanted to help in some way, so I made a small donation. And, even though I felt a sense of comfort for my small contribution, I still wanted to visit the disaster site, but was unable.

The unfortunate reason being that after my son’s death, my wife passed away from cancer, then years later, my second wife, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and I needed to care for her for about 10 years before the earthquake.

I knew that this tour, organized by the JPA, had been running since 2013, but the 2018 tour was the first one I could attend.

We passed through Kawamata and Namie towns, where radiation levels are still high, and arrived at the Yuriage Coast. An endless number of reconstruction embankments had been built, and a cenotaph inscribed with the names of countless victims had been erected.

I went up nearby Mt. Hiyoriyama, where a stupa had been erected, and sincerely read the Rishu-kyo and Heart Sutras for the many departed souls, saying, “I am sorry for the delay”.

In my mind’s eye, the screams of the lives of those who were suddenly struck down by the giant tsunami and suffered in a situation that could not be overcome by any human power, appeared and disappeared incessantly. As I read the sutras, I knew I should not cry as a monk, but the pain in my heart was so terrible that it overlapped with my past, in which I lost my five-year-old child and my two wives. I could not hold back my tears.

Photos on page 47.

Yoshitsune Morita

Column 2: Participating in the Fukushima Tour

During the Fukushima tour I had the privilege of participating in March 2016, I was able to experience many of the challenges.

When I saw the huge tsunami surging on TV, I could not believe my eyes, was this really true? The first thing that stayed with me was the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. We entered the area of Futaba Town from Tomioka Town in Fukushima Prefecture, which has changed from a difficult to an off-limit area. As I looked at the empty streets, time seemed to have stopped. My heart was crushed by the pain of those who had to leave their homes and evacuate, and by their inability to return. The myth that nuclear power is absolutely safe, is fragile, and we are still wondering whether nuclear power plants are the right energy solution in various regions of Japan.

It made me realize that human power is no match for the power of nature.

Next, we took a panoramic view of the JR Odaka Station area and coastal street in Minamisoma City, Fukushima Prefecture, and then headed to Hiyoriyama in Yamamoto Town, Miyagi Prefecture. There, we looked out over the flat, empty land on all sides. I heard that there used to be many houses in this area, but when I saw the quiet clearing with not even a trace of them left, I could not speak. On one side of the road, we could hear machinery moving and a large embankment was being constructed.

I thought of the many people who had been leading normal lives until then, and how quickly they were swept away by the tsunami.

We went to a place where a school bag, a piece of a shoe, and a pianica (small musical keyboard) were collected, the owner of which was still unknown. There were also other collections of items that were never claimed and probably never will be. The only noticeable sound was the construction of a levee being built in the distance, which seemed out of place.

We were reminded that we must never forget about the Great East Japan Earthquake in the future. We must not forget that there are still people whose lives are difficult.

The whole world is in a difficult situation right now due to covid-19. I believe that we must unite our hearts and minds to face the difficulties in the midst of big disasters.

Mutsuko Mihara, Former Vice Representative Director, Japan Patients Association
(Saga Consultation Support Center for Intractable Diseases)