TOMIOKA, Japan >> On March 11, 2011, one of the biggest earthquakes on record touched off a massive tsunami, killing more than 18,000 people and setting off catastrophic meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Nearly half a million people were displaced. Tens of thousands still haven’t returned home.
Ten years after the disaster, the lives of many who survived are still on hold.
More than $280 billion has been spent on rebuilding — but Reconstruction Minister Katsuei Hirasawa acknowledged that while the government has forged ahead with construction of new buildings, it has invested less in helping people rebuild their lives.
The Associated Press talked to people affected by the disaster.
‘As long as my body moves’
Yasuo Takamatsu, 64, lost his wife, Yuko, when the tsunami hit Onagawa, in Miyagi prefecture.
He has been looking for her ever since.
He even got his diving license to try to find her remains, and for seven years has gone on weekly dives — 470 and counting.
“I’m always thinking that she may be somewhere nearby,” he said.
Besides his solo dives, once a month he joins local authorities conducting searches for some 2,500 people whose remains are still missing.
Takamatsu said the city’s scars have largely healed, “but the recovery of people’s hearts … will take time.”
He said he will keep searching for his wife “as long as my body moves.”
“In the last text message that she sent me, she said, ‘Are you OK? I want to go home,’” he said. “I’m sure she still wants to come home.”
‘At the starting line again’
Just a month after a tsunami as high as 55 feet smashed into the city of Rikuzentakata, Michihiro Kono took over his family’s soy sauce business.
That he was even able to continue the 200-year-old business is a miracle, he said. Precious soy yeast was only saved because he had donated some to a university lab.
Later this year he will finish construction on a new factory, replacing the one that was destroyed, on the same ground where his family started making soy sauce in 1807.
“This is a critical moment to see if I can do something meaningful in the coming 10 years,” said the ninth-generation owner of Yagisawa Shoten Co. “I was born here, and now I’m at the starting line again.”
Kono often thinks of people he knew who were killed by the tsunami. He had spent time with them discussing revitalization plans.
“Those folks all wanted to make a great town, and I want to do things that will make them say, ‘Well done, you did it,’ when I see them again in the next life,” he said.
‘Who wants to come back?’
About 6 miles south of the nuclear plant disaster, rice farmer Naoto Matsumura defied a government evacuation order a decade ago and stayed to protect his land.
He’s still there.
Most of the town of Tomioka reopened in 2017. Its train station got a facelift and a shopping center was built.
But less than 10% of its 16,000 residents have returned after massive amounts of radioactive material spewing from the plant forced evacuations. Parts of the town remain off-limits.
“It took hundreds of years of history and effort to build this town, and it was destroyed instantly,” the farmer said.
In the six years it took to lift the evacuation order, many townspeople built lives elsewhere. Half of them say they will not return. This has been true across the region.
In Tomioka, radioactive waste from decontamination efforts are still stored in a no-go zone.
“Who wants to come back to a place like this?” he asked.
For company, Matsumura has several cows, a pony and a family of hunting dogs that help him chase away wild boars.
This spring, for the first time since the disaster, the 62-year-old farmer plans an experimental rice planting.
“I will stay here until the end of my life,” he said.
‘A place of comfort’
Hazuki Sato was 10 when she fled from her elementary school in Futaba, home of the wrecked nuclear plant.
She’s now preparing for the coming-of-age ceremony that is typical for Japanese 20-year-olds, hoping for a reunion in town so she can reconnect with former classmates who have scattered.
She still considers Futaba home.
After studying outside the region for eight years, Sato now works for her hometown from the city of Iwaki. None of Futaba’s 5,700 residents can move back until 2022, when the town is expected to partially reopen.
Sato has fond memories of Futaba — a family barbecue, riding a unicycle and studying with friends at a childcare center while waiting for her grandma to pick her up.
“I want to see this town become a place of comfort again,” she said.