Tomioka town in the Futaba district of Fukushima had a population of 15,839. It was a small town, but famous for having some of the most beautiful cherry blossoms in Japan. Every year Spring was celebrated with the Yonomori Sakura festival. The cherry blossoms trees were lit up on the nights of the festival, and there was a free market, yosakoi dancing and karaoke contests. Volunteers worked hard to plant new cherry blossom trees each year, ensuring that the festival could be enjoyed for generations to come.
|Cherry blossom picture from Tomioka Town website (here)|
The next day, all remaining residents were ordered to evacuate. We didn't understand why - not all houses were badly damaged. We had survived the earthquake and tsunami, why did we have to leave now?
The reason was that less than 20km away, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant had exploded - but no one was told this at the time.
People didn't know what to bring, or how long they would be gone, so many didn't bring anything with them. There was only one route to evacuate from, as a main highway was damaged. The only place to go was a nearby village, Kawauchi. Usually it would take 20 minutes to get there; following the disaster it took 8 hours. The Tomioka evacuees were supported by the village for a little while, but soon Kawauchi was also told that its residents must evacuate.
After that 3000 people went to the Big Palette convention centre in Koriyama, Fukushima, which had been turned into an evacuation centre. Upon arrival, residents underwent a screening inspection for radiation.
Initially evacuees had nothing but cardboard boxes to protect their privacy. Messages were written on bulletin boards, for families who had been separated in the confusion of the evacuation. Emergency plans were put in place, in case there were more aftershocks.
|An evacuee at Big Palette in her cardboard box (AP Photographer David Guttenfelder, source)|
The most difficult part was that there were no prospects, no jobs - everyday was just eating and sleeping. It was often stressful and irritating sharing the same space with 3,000 people. Of course, flu and infections spread easily - but these could be treated by a doctor. It was the mental diseases that were not so easily treated.
Residents created a 'help each other' centre. Students volunteered to give foot baths and massages, and lent an ear to those who wanted to talk. As people began to talk more, faces began to brighten.
By August 2011, the evacuation centre had closed. Evacuees were now scattered all over Fukushima, and even Japan. The community that was once so strong had been destroyed, giving rise to a new challenge - how to reconnect the Tomioka town residents?
The solution was relatively simple. We created a phonebook, tracking down and listing the present addresses and numbers of Tomioka residents throughout Japan.
With the future so uncertain, it has been important to create something for the people to live for - something to encourage them to live for tomorrow.
What happened in Fukushima during the disaster was different to other areas in Tohoku who only experienced the earthquake and tsunami. In Fukushima, we had been told the nuclear plants were safe. We felt shocked and betrayed. A natural disaster you can forget, but the nuclear disaster was a human error.
Despite this, it is necessary to remember we may be the victims of a disaster, but we are also the heroes and heroines of the reconstruction. I want people to love Fukushima.
|A year after the diaster, visitors in radiation proof suits admire the cherry blossoms in Tomioka (source)|