March 11 marked the fourth anniversary of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Nearly 20,000 people died as a result of the massive temblor and resulting tidal wave, and nearly 230,000 people were forced to relocate.
A Japanese blogger, Takayoshi Saito, has described in detail how the disaster affected the life of his youngest sister and her family. They used to live near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant that itself became the scene of yet another large scale disaster following the earthquake and tsunami.
The following post was translated and republished on Global Voices with permission from the author.
‘My Sister Built a New House With the TEPCO Settlement, Soma City is Building a New Municipal Hall’
Soma City in Fukushima Prefecture is my home town. My youngest sister and her family used to live very close to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in the township of Okuma. Her husband used to work at Fukushima Daiichi as an employee at a security company, a TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company, Inc.) subsidiary in charge of facility management.
Four years ago, on March 11, 2011, the situation at Fukushima Daiichi got so frantic that no one cared about the security of the facilities anymore. So my youngest sister and her husband decided to evacuate from Okuma town with their 1-year-old daughter.
I was in Tokyo, and had no luck when I tried to call my sister and my parents in Soma City. I worried about them so much, but there was nothing I could do so I killed time by tweeting stuff like “Ohhhhhhhh, the nuclear aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan is comiiiiiiiing!!!!“
Only once I was able to talk with my parents in Soma over the phone. They gave me an update saying, “Our house is fine. Your youngest sister and her family have evacuated to Tamura City in Fukushima prefecture. Your sister's father-in-law is staying in Okuma because he is a volunteer firefighter.”
After this conversation, I watched TV and learned the evacuation zone had been expanded and Tamura was now included in it.
Then I lost the whereabouts of my sister and her family. I worried if they could evacuate from Tamura, but I couldn't get hold of her. The only thing I could do was browse the Internet. I read polarized discussion between two groups — one which was overly stressing the safety of the situation at Fukushima Daiichi and the other which was highly alarmed by the danger of the situation.
When I was browsing online, I discovered that the first relief supplies to arrive in Soma were coffins. Soma Girls’ High School, which I had been so keen to attend when I was a high school student, had become a temporary morgue.
Many unidentified bodies were brought there from the coast, which had been hit hard by the giant tsunami. The Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) had also arrived in Soma and had started rescue operations.
Around the same time, my middle sister who lived in Urawa city in Saitama Prefecture (just to the north of Tokyo) asked her police officer boyfriend to drive up north to look for our youngest sister. They found our sister and her family among other evacuees in Kita Ibaraki city (just down the coast from Soma and Okuma).
They put them in the car and drove back to Urawa city. Meanwhile, I was just surfing the internet. I was such a useless brother in that time of emergency.
My middle sister got in touch with me and said that she was going to share her studio apartment in Urawa city with our youngest sister and her family in a while — that would make four people living in a tiny apartment.
I couldn't be of much help, but thought they would probably need cash. So I withdrew money from Mizuho Bank, which had also been temporarily knocked offline by the sheer number of people trying to make donations to help people affected by the disaster.
I went to Urawa with the money and handed it to my sisters. Urawa was at that time experiencing planned, rolling blackouts in order to conserve power from the weakened electricity grid, and my sisters seemed to have experienced a few blackouts.
When I gave them the money, my youngest sister said: “I'm so happy that everyone was okay”, then cried.
My youngest sister and her family stayed in Urawa for about a month before returning to Soma, where they were able to move in to one of the temporary housing allocations.
When I visited Soma about one year later I saw my sister's temporary housing. It was a wooden house that was clearly built in a hurried manner; the wood at the bottom had already started to rot.
I brought an Anpanman (a popular Japanese animation character) toy for my niece, but I couldn't help feeling pity for them.
Four years have passed since then. My youngest sister's family made lots of savings thanks to the compensation money from TEPCO, and they built a new house in Soma.
A little one was born during this time, and they now have two daughters. My sister's family told me that they were receiving a good amount of monetary compensation from TEPCO because the company pays even to small children, and my sister's family was therefore receiving compensation for four people.
My brother-in-law seems interested in having laser eye surgery or tooth whitening. They are in good financial shape. My relatives in the area do not hate TEPCO as much as TV reports.
In Soma city, construction work has begun on a new city hall. The design for this new hall was inspired by a Japanese traditional storehouse style called “Kura-zukuri”.
The old city hall, however, wasn't damaged by tsunami, and I wonder if there is a surplus in the budget for recovery that they'd rather spend somehow.
I also went to see the coastal area, but the little town where I used to see many guesthouses had turned into a vacant lot. Some of the buildings were left damaged. Soma used to be famous for seaweed cultivation, but it seemed too early to resume the business.
My mother lives in Soma. One time she was listening to a traditional Japanese popular song called Matsukawaura Ohashi Ondo (The Dance of the Matsukawaura Bridge) when she was driving.
My mother said that this song reminded her of Soma before the earthquake. The singer of this song had been killed by the tsunami during the earthquake.
It has been four years since the earthquake.
Last month, I visited Soma to tell my family about my latest move to a new condominium. I wished I could have returned to my hometown as someone who had accomplished a great thing. I told my parents: “I couldn't come here because I didn't have any good news.” They said: “It's your home. You can come back anytime.”
I will try again, ever harder, I promise.
About the Author
Takayoshi Saito (齊藤貴義) is the president of Sanbo Honbu, a prominent Japanese web development company. Saito has worked with a number of Japan's top internet companies include Livedoor, where he led development of Livedoor Reader. Saito is generally known online by his Twitter handle @miraihack.