Namie Town, Fukushima Prefecture.
12 years ago on March 11th, the town was devastated by an earthquake and tsunami.
It is also one of the towns that have been closed for a long time, designated as a "difficult-to-return to zone" due to radioactive contamination from the explosion at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, located next to the towns of Futaba and Okuma.
The words "Namie Futaba" appeared on the Tohoku Highway.
We had just arrived by car from the Kanto region and were craving some fresh air.
Seeing these words reminded us of the areas that were labeled "difficult-to-return-to" due to the nuclear power plant accident, and we spontaneously decided to stop by. As we got off the highway, we found that the "town that had been forgotten by Japan for years" was indeed breathing there. There were people there who were trying to regain their existence.
People were working cheerfully and happily at the gas station. I could almost hear their voices saying, "They're back at last!" He must have seen our car with a "Y" license plate number and thought we were rare guests because he was trying his best to speak in simple Japanese, serving us with a happy and pleasant demeanor.
The roadside station Namie, where people from all over town gather. I could not help but tear up as I entered the store. "Where do so many people come from in this small town?" There were so many people gathered that I wondered if everyone in town had given up their jobs just to come here.
There are people who are trying to reclaim this town where only a few years ago, yellow and black tape, along with red and white signs stood, barring people from entering. It is surely not only people from Namie Town but also people from outside of Fukushima Prefecture, maybe even from overseas, who have gathered here. Along with travelers like us, who are just dropping by. But when I left the city center for a bit and approached Futaba Town where the evacuation order had just been lifted in 2022, unlike earlier, I could not stop the tears from coming.
Debris and remains of the foundations of houses, seemingly leftover traces of the tsunami and/or earthquake. The sight of wild animals roaming about. Vegetation growing fast through the windows of empty houses.
Since that day, it had remained frozen in time.
The landscape that was surely transformed by that day stretched out before me. It felt as if I was in another world. I could not believe it. It is shocking that even after more than a decade, there are still places that have not been able to recover to this degree in Japan, a "disaster-prone" country that has achieved reconstruction many times over.
I saw a similar view in the countryside at the southern tip of Cebu Island in the Philippines.
The ruins of houses that had been destroyed by a big typhoon. Several years had passed, and the place remained in that state.
That is right. I was asked both by the driver who took me around Cebu and by my partner's relatives, "Has Japan recovered?" I said confidently when asked, "Yes, it's been 12 years. Everyone has recovered and new towns are springing up. Even radiation is no longer a problem. Japan is a country that has survived many earthquakes.”
I was wrong. "Exactly where does this Japan that has seemingly recovered begin and end?"
I had forgotten.
I had forgotten that there were still many damaged towns in Japan, in Tohoku.
Even in towns that are slowly moving forward and being reborn, there are many things that can never be recovered.
The wounds in people's hearts run deep, and they are not wounds that can be easily healed.
All the scars left by that day's earthquake are there, right in front of our eyes, deep in our hearts, so clearly and painfully that we want to turn away.
Feeling small and powerless, I wept again.
Six years ago, when I had just become a university student, I visited Minamisanriku Town with a friend and saw the devastation firsthand. It had been five years since the disaster, but at that time, I had already seen with my own eyes just how long the road to recovery was.
When I revisited the Yuriage District of Natori City, Miyagi Prefecture, unlike when I visited six years ago, there was a museum of historical records along with many tall buildings to serve as temporary tsunami shelters. In this way, some towns are certainly moving forward little by little.
Even the city of Sendai, which was supposed to have been severely damaged, has now returned to being a large and lively city. After looking at my friends' posts on social media who were traveling and watching TV programs avoiding the disaster areas, I had assumed that Tohoku had already been completely restored.
I had honestly forgotten about the nuclear accident somehow.
"There was no information because no one could get close to it," was the excuse. There are people living in this town who have been desperately trying to get their town back.
What have I been doing for the past 12 years?
At the time of the earthquake, I was an elementary school student. In the blink of an eye that elementary school student has become an adult who now wonders if there is anything more I could have done.
On that day, I experienced a major earthquake in a rural town in the northern Kanto region and watched in a daze as the tsunami swept away the town on TV, not fully understanding what was happening. We also experienced rolling blackouts after the nuclear accident. More than 10 years later, I still remember it clearly.
But even so, I felt ashamed of myself for talking to foreigners about "Japan's recovery" when in actuality, I knew nothing about the aftermath of the accident.
Today, September 1, is Disaster Prevention Day.
Some of you reading this article may not remember or have experienced 3.11.
However, even if you did not experience that horror, you can still learn the stories people have left behind. You can also go and see the towns that still bear the scars of the disaster with your own eyes. It may be difficult and painful to learn about, but there are lives that can be saved someday because we have educated ourselves.
Whether in Japan or on this planet, a 100% safe place does not exist.
Just as there are car accidents every day and shootings and murders somewhere every day, sadly, safety is not something that can be guaranteed. Unfortunately, we cannot escape that uncertainty.
But there are things we can learn and prepare for in case a devastating earthquake does occur.
Prepare an evacuation kit in a small, travel-sized bag.
When you move into a new place, check hazard maps and take a walk to the nearest evacuation shelter.
When redecorating, secure furniture and decide on a place to put a flashlight.
When you're on a trip, look at the signs on utility poles that say "...m above sea level," and think about which way is higher ground.
"Disaster prevention" may sound like a big deal, but it is just like traffic rules and everyday crime prevention that, if neglected, can be irreversible.
I believe that it can be made into a small daily habit, on the same level as checking both sides of the road when crossing the street or always locking your door when leaving your home.
In the many tsunami-affected towns where stone monuments stand in commemoration of the damage caused by the tsunami decades ago, the people of the past are addressing us. There are lives that can be saved by retelling and confronting this painful and sad history.
The few hours I spent in Namie Town taught me a lot. I gave it a lot of thought.
I am sure that I will visit Namie again, with its cute Ukedon character, delicious Namie yakisoba, and beautiful nature that makes you wonder if there was ever any radiation contamination, to begin with.
I will continue to update my disaster prevention ideas while cheering for the towns that are created and sustained by the people who stand firm against the merciless passing of time that continues to flow no matter what happens.
I will think about it. Every time I visit, I will think about how I can better protect myself and my loved ones.
Written by Kiana
Translated by Savannah Sutton
Edited by Emiru Okada
Graphics by Maya Kubota