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Fukushima Anniversary

Japan quake and tsunami survivors a decade on

Rebuilding lives and livelihoods after disaster devastated northeastern region

From left, Tomotaka Uchida, Kyohei Takahashi, Masami Yoshizawa, and Naoshi Sato (Photos by Ken Kobayashi)

TOKYO -- It has been 10 years since the March 11, 2011, earthquake and subsequent tsunami wreaked havoc and upended lives in the northeastern Japanese prefectures of Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate.

The disaster also triggered a meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. After the waves had subsided and the nuclear power plant stabilized, more than 22,000 people were counted as dead or missing.

Yet, despite the pain and devastation of losing homes, loved ones and livelihoods, those left behind found ways to carry on, creating their own legacies. Here is a look back over the last decade for some of those who have tried to embrace each day since.

Kyohei Takahashi: Creating a future for children

Kyohei Takahashi, who headed the then-Haramachi Chuo Obstetrics and Gynecology Hospital, launched his own support network for pregnant women after the disaster. 

The city of Minamisoma in Fukushima lies within a 30 km radius of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Most of its 70,000 citizens had fled to other places within and outside the prefecture to avoid exposure to radioactive material released by the nuclear disaster.

But many, including the prefecture's civil servants, had no choice but to stay and pick up the pieces. Some of these people were the city's pregnant women, prompting Kyohei Takahashi, who was head of the then-Haramachi Chuo Obstetrics and Gynecology Hospital, to launch his own network to offer support to these families.

"There will be no future for a town where there are no children," said Takahashi.

Takahashi, who delivered over 10,000 babies, gives a newborn a checkup in 2012.

Key to Takahashi's work in the early days was to decontaminate the homes of pregnant women, even before authorities were able to do so. With the help of other local doctors, construction professionals and nursery school workers, among others, he established the Minamisoma Decontamination Laboratory.

Having procured a whole-body radiation counter -- a device to measure radioactivity within the human body -- when few such instruments were available in Japan at the time, Takahashi worked tirelessly. Diagnosed with terminal rectal cancer in September that year, Takahashi continued to provide medical care, as well as carry out research on decontamination.

"When I think about those who died in the quake disaster, I am not afraid of dying," said Takahashi, who passed away Jan. 22, 2013.

Takahashi holds the hand of his son Sohei in a hospital in 2013. He died of rectal cancer at 19 days after this photo was taken, at the age of 74.

In the eight years since his death, the doctors inspired by Takahashi's mantra "continuous testing and data lead to security" have carried on with their research.

Masaharu Tsubokura, 39, a professor at Fukushima Medical University, is one of them, writing more than 140 papers over the past 10 years to help inform people both in Japan and abroad on matters related to radiation exposure.

Masaharu Tsubokura, a professor at Fukushima Medical University, uses a whole-body counter to check the radiation level of a child at a hospital in Minamisoma in 2016. Kyodei Takahashi was his mentor and an inspiration.

With Tsubokura's backing, the city of Minamisoma has measured the radiation absorbed by around 50,000 elementary and junior high school students, with 99.5% of them showing normal levels of radioactive cesium. Tsubokura holds regular information sessions for the city's residents, maintaining that knowing all they can about exposure to radiation will be crucial to fighting prejudice, discrimination and unfounded rumors.

Tsubokura still visits Takahashi's home and pays his respects at his mentor's Buddhist shrine. Not only did Takahashi safely deliver more than 10,000 babies in the city, he left behind an important body of work. His selfless spirit lives on.

Takahashi's son and wife, Toyoko, holding up his portrait in Minamisoma on Feb. 11. 

Masami Yoshizawa: Caring for abandoned cattle

Masami Yoshizawa, rancher of hope, has defied the government to care for abandoned cattle, feared to be radioactive.

Masami Yoshizawa is the head of Kibou no Bokujou Fukushima, otherwise known as the Ranch of Hope. Within the caution zone of around a 20 km radius from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, Yoshizawa takes care of radioactive cows and bulls.

As the 67-year-old brings vegetable scraps to the cattle in his tractor, they saunter over to gather around him. Yoshizawa is first a farmer, but he is also an anti-nuclear power activist.

Since the 2011 disaster, Yoshizawa has made regular trips to Tokyo from his home in Namie in Fukushima in his distinctively decorated truck to highlight the dire straits Namie's livestock industry are in and also to point out the area's devastated landscape.

After the disaster, government had asked farmers to cull all their livestock within the caution zone, an order that Yoshizawa defied.

Carcasses of cattle trapped in their enclosures seven months after the disaster in 2011. 

"I object to the slaughter, not from the viewpoint of animal protection, but because it is an issue of how to deal with life. Raising cattle with care, slaughtering them with respect and making a living is my job. I couldn't accept the unilateral request that ignored the rules of life," he said.

Yoshizawa herded the cattle that had been abandoned and took care of them with donations from across the country. Ten years on, the number of cattle has declined from about 330 to 235.

Around 235 cattle, down from 330, still live on Yoshizawa's ranch. With a life span of around 15 years, these cows and bulls will likely die out within the next five years, Yoshizawa says.

That number is set to decrease still. "The life span of cattle is around 15 years. They will almost all be gone in another five years," he said.

A hydrogen facility is being constructed in Namie, as authorities hope to breathe some new life into the town. In nearby Futaba, the Nuclear Disaster Memorial Museum has opened.

But Yoshizawa is skeptical about such reconstruction. "No matter how many large buildings are built, will there be a future for a town where essential workers and children don't return?" he said.

Yoshizawa feeds the cattle with vegetable scraps donated by other farmers.

In this quiet corner of the world, Yoshizawa continues to fight his battle. "Abandoned cattle are a symbol of Japan's nuclear administration. Although I am just a cattle farmer, I have come this far because I have backbone and pride. I will be here, raising the last of the cattle," he said.

Tomotaka Uchida: Still chasing a dream

Tomotaka Uchida has been managing “Tsuki to Subaru," an eatery serving curry and coffee in the Minamisanriku town of Miyagi for seven years.

On March 13, 2011, while I was taking photos of the evacuation center that had been set up in Sizugawa High School in the Miyagi Prefecture town of Minamisanriku on a hill away from the devastated urban area, a man called out to me and said, "I have no information. What is the situation like in Tokyo?" That was my first encounter with Tomotaka Uchida.

Uchida looks at debris that used to be people's homes. Uchida lost his home and bar in the tsunami.

In a matter of minutes, Uchida lost his home and the bar he had run for 14 years in Minamisanriku, both swept away by the tsunami. Battling the depths of despair, Uchida, who is also a licensed chef, went to the evacuation center to provide hot meals for the displaced. He quickly became a symbol of the center, a shining light during a bleak time.

Those who found out about Uchida on social media and elsewhere began to send him large volumes of relief supplies, which he distributed. He continued to support those affected until the evacuation center closed in August that year.

As a licensed chef, Uchida was able to provide hot meals at the evacuation center in Minamisanriku for those displaced by the disaster.

In 2014, Uchida finally realized his dream of opening a restaurant, called Tsuki to Subaru, or Moon and Pleiades, that serves curry and coffee, at Minamisanriku San San Shopping Mall that was reconstructed the same year.

But looking back on the last decade, Uchida voiced some regret, "It is not that I have only good memories."

Although he was a popular figure in the aftermath of the disaster, a row over money had since tainted his reputation. Being an outspoken man, Uchida also once became the target of harassment and rumors.

Uchida led efforts to distribute relief supplies in 2011. 

The coronavirus outbreak has dealt him another challenge. The Minamisanriku San San Shopping Mall is now largely empty of shoppers. Sales at Uchida's restaurant have also declined by almost half since most of the people visiting this shopping complex were tourists.

"I am now just waiting for the coronavirus infections to be brought under control. But I am thinking about going out of this town and running a shop in a different town sometime in the future," he said. For the 44-year-old, the Minamisanriku shop might yet turn out to be a steppingstone as he continues to chase his dream.

Naoshi Sato: Becoming a 'new ancestor'

At 88, Naoshi Sato still works as a logger. Here, he is taking a rest after felling a tree. He lost his home and his son 10 years ago in the tsunami.

The tsunami flooded most of central Rikuzentakata in Iwate Prefecture, leaving more than 1,750 people, or about 7% of its population at the time, dead or missing. Naoshi Sato, who lives in the town of Kesen in Rikuzentakata, turned 88 this year.

When the tsunami hit the town 10 years ago, Sato fled up a hill with his eldest son Shoichi, then 47, who was a firefighter. Having led his father to safety, the younger Sato went back into town to try to save the other elderly people left behind. Tragically, he was killed by the tsunami.

Sato, left, picks up his son's bones, as part of funeral rites, after he was cremated on April 12, 2011.

The number of households in Naoshi Sato's Kesen hamlet, which is still being reconstructed, has shrunk to fewer than 500, half what it was before the quake. Sato has chosen to rebuild his home in the exact same spot as the old one that the tsunami swallowed. Being a logger, he rebuilt his home with the help of this friends in 2012 using tsunami-soaked timber that could not be sold.

Sato ignored the local government's request that people refrain from building their homes until the authorities' reconstruction plan was complete. When asked what he would do if another tsunami hit his home again, the indomitable Sato said, "That doesn't matter. As long as I live, I have only to rebuild it."

Sato in the home he rebuilt in 2012 with the help of friends. He says if another disaster strikes, he will rebuild again on the same spot.

Sato has become a star in his own right, featuring in a documentary called "Senzo ni Naru," or "Becoming an Ancestor." Sato says that as the land he inherited from his ancestors have been swept away, he will become a "new ancestor" for future generations.

He lost some friends in his hamlet over the last decade. "When I get up every morning, I feel happy to be alive. I grow rice in spring and summer and work as a logger in autumn and winter. Nothing will change until I die," he said.

Sato visits the tombstone of his friend and neighbor Noboru Suzuki, who died last year.

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