The Great East Japan Earthquake: Our Fadeless Memories and Lost Home

Connecting People

Nearly 6 years after the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011, approximately 13 million still live in post-disaster temporary housing facilities (Reconstruction Agency, January 2017). In 2016, AAR Japan (Association for Aid and Relief) held 64 events in its continuous effort to encourage disaster victims to socialize, maintain their health and relieve stress. 1,201 people participated in activities that involved massage and counseling, craft workshop, lunch events and others.

In Iwate, AAR is continuing its effort in Otsuchi, a town which was severely damaged as the tsunami had washed away the entire town. Six years after the disaster, more than half its population are forced to live in temporary housing. While public housing facilities are being completed in some areas, progress has been slow in the devastated areas. These areas have only finished developing plans for banking work and making foundations on higher ground, allowing no evacuees from these areas to leave the temporary houses and return home for the next 2 years.

Today, many still struggle with their memories of their tsunami experience. A woman in her 80s said, "I was on the second floor of my house when I saw my elderly neighbor screaming for help while the tsunami took her. She looked at me, but I could not do anything to save her. While her daughters have decided to return to their family's renovated house, she has chosen to wait for the public housing to be completed in 2 years, never to be in a place that can remind her of the experience of the disaster. Another woman told us, "I was able to move from temporary housing to public housing, but living alone can feel very isolating and I still have sleepless nights because of my experience with the tsunami."
Temporary housing resident and her handmade princess dolls at a craft workshop, Minami-Soma Koike Harahata Daini temporary housing (February 2nd, 2017)

Despite their painful memories, many showed us their smiles when they joined our social events in a temporary house. "We always look forward to seeing and chatting with others," participants said. Through opportunities like this, those who have left temporary houses and those left behind are able to connect with each other. It provides a way for disaster victims to stay connected and to ease their pain.
Temporary housing residents interacting a common room in Otsuchi Daisan temporary housing facility (December 10th, 2016)

Concerns over a Split Community

In Fukushima, we provide our assistance to temporary houses in Minami-Soma, Kawamata, Miharu, Katsurao, and Iwaki, cities with a large number of nuclear disaster victims. In these cities, a lot of temporary housing residents have moved recently or will be moving soon given the completion of a number of restoration public housing facilities and the lifting of evacuation orders in still contaminated areas. Some residents are forced to stay longer however, due to delayed completion of public housing and delayed renovation of their houses owing to shortages of workers and housing materials. Lack of socialization is now a concerning factor. Those left behind display anxious expressions when we visit them, and those who have moved to the recently-completed public restoration housing are attending social events less often. Communities built over the past 6 years are being split as evacuees have started to move to new places or return home, and families are parting ways as elderly parents tend to return home whilst the younger generation tends to stay in the same area.

We will not Go Home, We Cannot Go Home

Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry
By the end of March, evacuation orders will be lifted in most areas of Fukushima, except for the "difficult to return zone" (colored in pink on the map). However, many express anger and sadness when we conduct our surveys.
A temporary housing resident who has evacuated from Namie to Minami-Soma explained that only a fraction of the evacuees are expected to return home after the evacuation order is lifted. She also plans to stay in Miami- Soma. "We all want to go home, but we refuse to trust the government and TEPCO who have been lying to us. Seeing those black bags filled with radioactive contaminants left on the ground, I have no desire to go back there" said the woman. Another 80-year-old woman who has also evacuated from Namie to Nihonmatsu city tried to remain calm as she spoke to us, "I still remember clearly like it was yesterday how the TEPCO leaders came here and said to us that they promise to remove the radioactive contaminants completely and restore the town. They have broken their promises."

In the Yamakiya district of Kawamata town, evacuees will be allowed into the area at the end of March. An evacuee says, "We cannot grow rice with those radioactive contaminants piled up next to it. How do they think that people will buy rice grown in this area? The sweetness of the countryside in Fukushima, pure water, rice grown using clean water, wild plants, tree nuts, fish, and mushrooms produced in the mountains- it simply cannot be bought with compensation from the government." He continued, "It will cost roughly 1 billion yen, if we were to go back to where we evacuated from, purchase equipment and start farming again. But who would go through the pain of all this and start farming again? People who are more likely to go back are the elderly."
Radioactive contaminant piled up in different locations in Namie city (February 8th, 2017)

Decrease in the Number of Evacuees and New Problems

We are finding from our surveys of disaster victims that while the number of evacuees is decreasing as evacuation orders are being lifted in more areas, problems that were anticipated a year ago - split communities and families, an aging society, population outflow from contaminated areas, the return policy requiring the evacuees to return to vacant houses, radioactive contamination, restoration of farms, and other problems - have only been aggravated, let alone solved.
There are countless problems. With the help of our supporters, AAR will continue playing its part to bring people together in temporary housing and new homes outside of temporary housing, and to bring hope to the lives of disaster victims.
The first rehabilitation and survey in Katsurao community center after the evacuation order is lifted (December 17th, 2016)

Shinichiro OHARA, AAR Japan Sendai office
Joined AAR in August 2011 after working in a manufacturing company.Based in Sendai, he has been engaged in recovery assistance in Iwate, Miyagi, Fukushima nearly daily. Born in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture.

Japanese-English translation by Ms.  Satoko Koyama
English editing by Mr. Joseph Scutella
This article has been translated by volunteers as part of the AAR Japan's Volunteer Programme. Their generous contributions allow us to spread our activities and ideas globally, through an ever-growing selection of our reports from the field.