IWAKI, Fukushima Prefecture–A teenage girl whose family has fallen apart since the Fukushima nuclear crisis unfolded is finally coming to terms with her father’s job.
Haruka Yashiro’s father, 51, works for Tokyo Electric Power Co., operator of the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. Her family lived in Naraha, Fukushima Prefecture, within 20 kilometers of the plant, where a triple meltdown was triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011.
“You said it would be OK, but it wasn’t OK in the end!” her mother, now 49, bawled at her husband in the summer of 2011, the 18-year-old Haruka recalls. They were staying in an apartment–the family’s fourth evacuation shelter–in Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture.
Her father just remained silent, she says.
Haruka, then a first-year high school student, recalls shutting herself up in the lavatory. Weeping quietly so she would not be overheard, she tried to comprehend how this had happened to her family.
On the second day of the nuclear crisis, the family had to evacuate and sleep in their car.
Haruka’s father was called back to the nuclear plant to help bring the situation under control. He was only able to return to his family’s shelter eight days a month. Haruka watched as her father’s slender build became even skinnier, and his cheeks grew hollow.
Her mother deleted about 30 names from her cellphone directory after acquaintances began accusing her of “pretending to be a victim” and calling on her to “take responsibility.”
Even Haruka’s grandmother, who evacuated to Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, did not want to be associated with the family. “Do you realize how ashamed I feel because your husband works for TEPCO?” she told her daughter, who broke into tears.
This was in spite of the fact that Haruka’s mother, who worked for a TEPCO group company in her youth, followed the advice of Haruka’s grandmother to marry an employee of TEPCO, which was considered a secure employer.
Soon after, Haruka’s parents stopped talking to each other. Instead, she would receive e-mails from her father and relay the messages to her mother.
Whenever she saw footage of anti-nuclear protests on TV news programs, Haruka says she felt resentful, as if the protesters were accusing her father.
“They didn’t even know the locations of nuclear plants that provided electricity to Tokyo,” she says of her thoughts at the time. “And none of them wants to learn how hard my father is working. They’re sort of irresponsible, aren’t they?”
But deep inside, she also worried that people would shun her if she talked about her father to anyone. As a result, she rarely mentioned him in conversation while in high school.
A turning point came in the summer of 2012, when Haruka was among 300 high school students from disaster-stricken areas in northeastern Japan invited to visit the United States on a short-term program organized by a nonprofit entity and a private company. As she sat through discussions with her fellow participants and U.S. students, Haruka realized she was gaining more courage to speak openly.
Back in Japan, Haruka joined a meeting in Tokyo where high school students from disaster areas discussed challenges facing northeastern Japan. She made up her mind to tell her own story after she listened to a high school student from Miyagi Prefecture who recounted how she lost her mother to the tsunami.
Haruka said she was so nervous that she trembled while speaking, but everybody listened to her story, some in tears.
The disaster gave her the opportunity to become stronger, she said.
After relocating to Iwaki in the spring of 2012, Haruka joined a group that organizes bus tours to the city in hopes of increasing tourism, which plummeted after the 3/11 disaster. The group was initiated by one of Haruka’s fellow high school participants in the U.S. visit program.
The bus tour program began in May 2013 with the support of a travel agency and is currently in its third phase.
On a recent tour, Haruka told tourists from the Tokyo metropolitan area that she is the daughter of a TEPCO employee who is working to end the nuclear crisis.
“Please never forget that we used to live in Naraha,” she told them.
One tourist responded with a hug. Another said her father and his colleagues were “heroes.”
Haruka says at that moment she felt that she finally spoke out for her father, who has turned taciturn and has seldom smiled since the onset of the nuclear disaster.
At home, however, relationships are still fractured. Her mother has not forgiven Haruka’s grandmother for what she said.
Her father, who is working to extract nuclear fuel from the No. 4 reactor at the crippled plant, comes home only on weekends. Even when he is back, he and Haruka’s mother don’t look each other in the eye.
Haruka graduated from high school on March 1. From April, she will be studying architecture at a university in Fukushima Prefecture.
“I wish our family could sit together in the living room and chat happily as we used to do,” she said. “But I have no idea what I could do to make that happen.”
However, with her newly found courage, she does plan to confront her grandmother and ask why she said what she did to her mother. She says she is confident that her action could help re-establish relationships within the family.
Stress-related deaths have exceeded the death toll of those directly killed by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami in Fukushima Prefecture, as Asahi Shimbun survey showed.
As of the end of January, in the three hardest-hit prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima, 2,973 people had died from physical and psychological fatigue since the disaster struck on March 11, 2011, the survey showed.
Fukushima Prefecture, which hosts the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, accounted for 1,660 of those deaths, compared with 1,607 deaths directly caused by the magnitude-9.0 earthquake and tsunami.
The stress-related death toll was 879 for Miyagi Prefecture and 434 for Iwate Prefecture, according to the survey.
In Fukushima Prefecture, more than 130,000 people have been evacuated because of the nuclear accident, and the emotional strain from living away from home is taking a toll.
“Older people tend to get ill due to changes in their environments,” a prefectural government official said. “Stress from anxiety about an unforeseeable return home also affects their health and can lead to death.”
According to Fukushima Prefecture, more than 80 percent of stress-related deaths in the prefecture occurred among residents of 11 municipalities with designated evacuation zones following the 2011 disaster.
Among the applications for recognition as disaster-related victims, 83.0 percent were accepted as such in Fukushima Prefecture, 59.4 percent in Iwate Prefecture and 75.5 percent in Miyagi Prefecture, the survey showed.
The number of stress-related deaths in the three prefectures was 2,634 in March 2013, according to the Reconstruction Agency, meaning the number has increased by 339 over the following 10 months.
There are no legal standards to recognize deaths from physical and mental fatigue following a tsunami or nuclear power accident. The designation is determined by municipalities, and this has led to disputes concerning public consolation payment.
Once recognized as a disaster victim, those considered the breadwinners of their families are granted 5 million yen while others receive 2.5 million yen in consolation payments.
Nearly 3,000 post-disaster deaths have been recognized as disaster-related, but the case of Sayo Takano was not one of them.
An evacuee from the Fukushima nuclear disaster, she had been transferred to and from hospitals and care facilities. She died in a hospital in January 2012 at the age of 90.
Her son, Mitsuji Takano, a resident of Minami-Soma and Fukushima prefectural assembly member, applied to the city for recognition of her death as disaster-related in December 2012.
The city rejected the application in February 2013.
“(Sayo) was in a position of receiving care at any time,” the city said. “And we cannot recognize a direct relation between the disaster and the cause of her death.”
Takano, 61, filed a lawsuit with the Fukushima District Court.
“My mother died after being deprived of her strength to live because of the unforeseeable evacuation,” Takano said.
MINAMI-SANRIKU, Miyagi Prefecture–A filmmaker who started documenting a fishing community in this town, three years before it was swept away by the tsunami on March 11, 2011, will soon release his work at mini theaters across the country.
“The People Living in Hadenya–Part One” was directed by Kazuki Agatsuma, who survived the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.
The 28-year-old was a researcher in folklore studies at Tohoku Gakuin University in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture, when he first encountered the Hadenya district of Minami-Sanriku in 2005. He became interested in the tight-knit community, which revolves around a traditional mutual assistance framework, known as “keiyakuko,” found throughout the Tohoku region.
In February 2008, Agatsuma commenced filming in Hadenya, where mountains stretch almost to the coast. At the time, most of the 80 households in the community made their livelihoods from oyster, ascidian, and seaweed farming.
The film shows how keiyakuko dictates the lifestyles of the residents.
In the film, parents openly discuss the pros and cons of letting their children leave the community after they come of age, and the impact such an exodus might have on the survival of the keiyakuko culture.
Keiyakuko was traditionally started among families who had lived in the area for generations. But emerging households embarked on aquafarming from the 1970s onward, and they quickly gained economic clout. As a result, the surface of the ocean soon became covered with aquafarming racks, and the quality of seaweed began to decrease.
The film conveys the reality of Hadenya through various images of daily life such as a fisherman and his wife preparing for oyster farming and a traditional event called “oshishisama,” in which an exorcist lion dancer visits each household in March.
Agatsuma said there were times, however, when he struggled to get people to speak their minds, and filming did not go as planned. But the residents encouraged him to finish shooting. “You should make a film that makes people cry,” he said one of the people in the community told him.
On March 11, 2011, Agatsuma was heading to Hadenya to set the date for a movie preview with the local people who cooperated in the production. As the tsunami hit, he abandoned his vehicle and film equipment and sprinted up the mountain to safety.
The next morning, he managed to reach the community, only to find that everything had been swept away by the tsunami. Among the dead were fishermen and junior high school students with whom he had become close through interviews. Agatsuma joined efforts to help remove the enormous amount of debris and pump out the water from the community.
Four days after the disaster, Agatsuma returned to his hometown Shiroishi in the prefecture. In the wake of the catastrophe, he ruminated over the significance of depicting the pre-earthquake lifestyle of the Hadenya residents, whose houses were swept away by the ocean.
His first cut of the film turned out to be an epic six hours, while the second was trimmed to 56 minutes. But neither version satisfied the filmmaker. In the end, he settled on a final cut that runs 134 minutes.
Although the film shows some scenes of debris scattered throughout the community, Agatsuma said he decided not to dwell on the disaster because he was aiming to convey a different message.
“With this film I set out to tell a universal truth that no matter what happens, life goes on,” he said.
DATE, Fukushima Prefecture–Kenichi Hasegawa’s home videos and photos do not contain the usual fare. They show cows heading for slaughter, villagers bidding farewell, and men in protective suits roaming the village.
Hasegawa said he bought a single-lens reflex camera and a camcorder immediately after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami triggered the accident at the nearby Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in March 2011.
“I have to keep records for the sake of posterity,” said Hasegawa, a 60-year-old dairy farmer.
His home village of Iitate in this northeastern prefecture was once filled with edible wild plants in spring, mushrooms in autumn and wild boar hunts in winter.
But that peaceful life in the mountains came to an abrupt end when the nuclear accident spewed radioactive substances over the village.
Eight members of four generations in Hasegawa’s family once lived together. They are now separated in four households.
Hasegawa lives with his wife in temporary housing in Date, Fukushima Prefecture.
Driven by the will to persevere, Hasegawa has published two books and a photo collection, in addition to a 70-minute documentary film he released in autumn. He has been to various parts of Japan, Germany and South Korea to give about 200 speeches about the plight of the village.
His photos feature scenes of the departure of his 50 dairy cows, some for a slaughterhouse and others for new owners; his empty cow barn; villagers evacuating Iitate; dilapidated farmland; and the radioactive cleanup work that continues to devour huge expenses.
Hasegawa plans to soon publish his second collection of photos, which will document changes in the village and the travails of villagers following the nuclear accident.
Nearly three years after the nuclear disaster started, an increasing number of Iitate villagers are yearning for land to live on and houses to live in. Hasegawa has acute concerns about the policy line of the village government, which sets return as a foregone conclusion.
The farmer says he believes Iitate’s villagers will fall apart unless a temporary, replacement village is built soon.
“I don’t want others to experience what we have undergone,” Hasegawa said in his characteristic, hoarse voice. “It’s enough that we have had to go through it.”
He said his foremost desire was to be able to live with all his family members under a single roof.