Minamisoma, a sprawling rural city in Fukushima, was hit by the 11 March tsunami. Parts of the city also lie within the exclusion zone around the crippled nuclear plant. The BBC’s Roland Buerk met residents who have stayed to rebuild.
The noise of construction trucks carries a long way across the outskirts of Minamisoma. There is nothing to block the sound.
Buildings were washed away, trees uprooted by the tsunami. The salt left the paddy fields barren and brown, the only harvest this year is of broken fishing boats.
The disaster back in March cut an arbitrary swathe through the community. On one side of the street – complete destruction. On the other, just beyond the high-water mark, people are seeing out the year in houses that were untouched, like the one belonging to the Mottate family.
By chance, they built their property on a little rise. When the first wave hit, it pushed a fishing trawler against the wall. Perhaps that protected them from the surges that followed.
But now, when Saori Mottate sits in her tatami-mat room – the one with the paper screens and the big windows – she looks out not onto green fields but a wasteland. She still has not got over the shock.
“I went in to Minamisoma this morning, I had something to do,” she says, her voice catching in her throat. “It was the first time I’d been since the disaster. My niece died there.”
“It would almost have been easier if our house had been washed away. We’d still have had the mortgage to pay, but we could have thought about moving away. But we have a home here, old relatives to look after. The reality is you cannot make that decision easily.”
They are not the only ones who stay. The Soma Hoikuen nursery school has 155 toddlers this winter. But the town lies just outside the exclusion zone around the Fukushima nuclear plant.
It means the teachers have to deal, not just with traumatised toddlers, but the danger of radiation.
Kids at a nursery school in Minamisoma Food for the nursery school children is all sourced from outside the town
The headmistress, Chieko Nakai, personally helped a team of volunteers to hose down the roof. Mechanical diggers were used to remove the contaminated five centimetres of topsoil from the playground and bury it in the corner.
Even so, the swings have not been used since March. The children have to play inside.
The volunteers have now moved on, but it is slow work cleaning up an entire town one spadeful at a time. This week they were at the home of the Amano family, a young couple with two boys aged two and five.
They only moved in December 2010, three months before the tsunami triggered the nuclear crisis down the road.
The men, many of whom had taken time off work in other parts of Japan to help, were scooping up the gravel from the garden, and rinsing it with high pressure hoses.
Before they began, they measured the radiation with Geiger counters and found it was 10 times higher than normal. The work took 20 men two days. One house among tens of thousands.
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We have not been able to rebuild – when I say that, I’m not only talking about drawing a line under the nuclear issue, but also the effect of the tsunami and earthquake ”
Katsunobu Sakarai Mayor of Minamisoma
“There’s no way for us to do all of them,” says team leader Kunihiro Yoshida, who bought the equipment from compensation money he received from the nuclear plant’s operator Tepco, after being forced to abandon his own home.
“We know that. But the city and the government are being very slow. This is an emergency measure by us. We are prioritising people with children and pregnant women.”
Yoshiaki Amano’s job is what is keeping the family here. That and the fact his son is happy at his nursery school. But life is not easy for the boys.
“We don’t let them go outside at all,” he says. “If they do go out they have to wear a [face] mask so you don’t really see any kids playing around here.”
“We took the boys to another prefecture to give them the opportunity. But when we put our two-year-old in a sandpit, he sat there frozen. He didn’t know what to do.”
The plot next door to the Amano’s is empty so that is where they are storing the most contaminated gravel and dirt, in an oil drum painted yellow and branded with the symbol for radiation and the word danger. There is nowhere else.
Against all odds
Minamisoma is far from a ghost town despite its proximity to the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl.
At night Christmas lights glisten on the lamp-posts along the main shopping street, accompanied by carols piped to loudspeakers. There is often a queue to get in to the best Chinese restaurant. The roads are busy with traffic.
But the city’s mayor, Katsunobu Sakarai, who went on YouTube back in April to appeal for more help from the government and the outside world, knows there is much still to do.
Volunteers at Minamisoma digging gravel Men volunteer to help clean up houses one spadeful at a time
“We have not been able to rebuild,” he says in his reception room in the City Hall. “When I say that, I’m not only talking about drawing a line under the nuclear issue, but also the effect of the tsunami and earthquake.”
“The biggest reason is because of the radiation from the nuclear power plant accident. The support from the government to deal with it has been inadequate, as well as for rebuilding the city. The reality is that it has not progressed.”
Before March, the town had a population of 71,000, which fell to 20,000. Now it is back up to 43,000.
Still Mr Sakarai exudes an air of calm and quiet determination. He still wears overalls rather than a business suit, like the prime minister did immediately after the disaster, although officials in Tokyo swapped back long ago.
A farmer and councillor before he went for a job that should have been about opening school fairs and organising the rubbish collections, he believes it is his destiny to lead his city’s fightback against the biggest disaster in its history.
At the nursery school, the headmistress also has a sense of mission – to protect the children as best she can. Her own house was washed away.
But it will be take years to rebuild the damage left by the tsunami, and by the time Minamisoma has been cleared of radiation, the toddlers in her care could be heading towards middle age.