By Lachlan Forsyth
On a cold winter's morning last March, 65-year-old Sato Yukiko was going about her business in a small village on the Fukushima coast when she looked up to see a wall of water rushing towards her.
Sato san lost a lot that day. Her home, community, friends, family... But one thing she has refused to lose is her hope.
When we met Sato san it was a grey, grimy day in Fukushima, but her smile beamed beautifully. She may have experienced unimaginable sadness, unable to return to the town where she had grown up, but she was happy.
She had approached us because she wanted to thank the international community for its help during Japan's time of need, and she wanted the world to know that things would be ok.
Progress comes like a slow wheel turning, she said. It moves, but never fast enough.
Normality was returning to places like Fukushima, but the wheel of progress was turning very slowly indeed.
Fukushima City is around 80 kilometres from the nuclear power plant it shares a name with. But there are other towns much closer to the plant, and the danger.
In the town of Minamisoma we met Koizumi Takayoshi. A grocer by trade, he had lived there for 40 years. He proudly showed off his produce - radishes, apples, cucumbers. He pointed out his pumpkins to us – all the way from New Zealand.
The plump red strawberries he had on offer were better than any I’d ever seen for sale in New Zealand. The problem is that when those strawberries are grown just down the road from a faltering nuclear reactor no one wants to buy them.
Although the certificates posted above every item proclaim them safe to eat, perceptions linger. The name Fukushima is no longer associated with the crisp, green cucumbers or ripe, shiny tomatoes produced in the region. Who’d want to eat spring onions that had been grown in the soils of Fukushima, once so fertile and productive, but now so close to the worst nuclear incident of the last two decades?
It was mainly the younger ones who were afraid. Many had left. If you were older, and had a job, fleeing wasn’t an option. Koizumi may have been afraid, but he wouldn’t admit it, and he wouldn't leave. This was his home, he explained. Leaving would mean leaving his job, his way of life. If he was younger he may have left, but at his age the end wasn’t far away anyway. No point running.
For me and cameraman Chris Jones, it was a sobering return to Japan one year on from that earthquake, and that wave.
The road that used to lead out of Minamisoma now leads to a checkpoint, preventing traffic from approaching the troubled nuclear power station. The heavy snow simply added an air of poignancy to the grim scene as we stopped to shoot some pictures.
Almost immediately one of the policeman guarding the checkpoint rushed up to Chris, pointing at the ground and waving his hands frantically. It’s something we’re familiar with – police, security, or officials letting us know we’re not welcome, or filming’s not allowed. Chris started to back away just as our interpreter Motoko arrived to try and sort out the issue. She came back beaming. Filming wasn’t a problem, she said, they were just worried he may slip on the icy footpath and they wanted him to be careful.
Two policemen, charged with guarding a checkpoint that leads towards three failed nuclear reactors, and they still wanted to ensure a foreign cameraman kept his footing in a few inches of snow.
Just outside the checkpoint we came across a man taking readings. He confirmed that while the radiation where we were standing was certainly higher than normal, it was safe, slightly below a cat scan. Still, we weren’t keen to hang out basking in it, even at those low levels, for terribly long.
We jumped in the car and started to work our way along the coastline that had been so ravaged 12 months ago. At first glance, I wasn’t sure what had changed. Up and down the coast enormous piles of debris were being sorted into smaller piles, and then smaller piles still. The job is just so big. You could drive for seven hours up that coast and see telltale signs of the tsunami all the way. Here and there the land was cleared – empty except for concrete foundations, ready for rebuilding. In other spots the debris had barely been touched – simply bulldozed into heaped piles.
Busloads of tourists now traverse the area, taking photos of the wreckage, smiling and posing in front of smashed up stores. I suppose we’re not that different really. A bus on top of the two story council offices caught the eye of tourists and media alike.
Most of the people we saw working seemed to be volunteers. We heard of a man who’d spent $80,000 of his own money in assisting people. One woman had organised a flower planting on the spot where her mother’s home once stood. It was intended to welcome visitors to the area, to restore some community pride, and to mark the start of rebuilding their town.
Her mother wasn’t there that day to see the festivities in that small valley. She was one of 70 who were taken that day last March.
Many of them have never been found. We later heard that divers continue to search for signs of victims. A sad fact, but perhaps an unsurprising one - more than 3,000 people remain missing.
Besides the obvious sadness at losing friends and family, the people we spoke to were frustrated by the speed of recovery.
We grew used to seeing sprawling plains, once thick with houses, now with only one or two buildings remaining. Around them, roads, and bridges led to communities that no longer existed.
In Nobiru just 20 houses remained where there had once been 400. The population of 2500 had been reduced to 200. A handful of families remain – but what is there for them to remain for? In communities up and down the coast tens of thousands had left, and were unlikely to return. Truth be told, there’s little for them to return to. Nobiru's train station – it's lifeline - is still battered beyond use, the steel tracks bent and broken. There is no industry, no work, and no sign of the long-promised reconstruction.
Further up the coast, in the port town of Minamisanriku, things were more promising. The car perched atop a three story building that we’d first seen last year was still there, but there were also signs that industry was once more taking hold. The harbour was crowded with thousands upon thousands of buoys holding ropes for aquaculture, and refitted fishing boats were cutting through the waters to service them. We spotted a gleaming new building and took shelter inside its cavernous interior from the snow and the sludge. Inside it rows of tanks brimmed with flounder, mackerel, and octopus. An old fisherman, bent almost double, ferried buckets of fish to and from the tanks, readying them for that day’s market. We watched in amazement as he manhandled an enormous monkfish into the water, nonchalantly ignoring its snapping, razor-sharp teeth.
With those first stirrings of industry, it seemed life was slowly returning to something resembling normality, but with the population a fraction of what it was and much of the town’s infrastructure missing, it was easy to understand why authorities spoke of a ten to twenty year recovery in places like Minamisanriku. Who could seriously expect anything else? When a town of 20,000 is literally washed away, how quickly can you expect it to be rebuilt, particularly with dozens of similarly ravaged communities up and down the coast?
Minamisanriku just after the tsunami (above) and this week (below)
It is an immense challenge, but if there is one thing which will overcome those challenges it is the resilience and determination of the Japanese people, their unwavering belief in what they, as a people, can achieve.
That resilience, that strength, became apparent over the hour we stood in front of a Fukushima shopping mall, talking to people as they passed.
Takada Shinosuke couldn’t have been more than 20 years old. He was shy and modest, his eyes barely glanced up from the footpath, and he paused thoughtfully before answering my questions.
Why had he stayed, with so many fears, when so many had left?
"I want to be strong," he said, "for Fukushima."
All the businesses, all the vehicles around us, were signs of recovery, he said, signs that Fukushima was once again finding its strength, and that Japan was finding its strength.
It was hard not to appreciate that in times of hardship the Japanese resolve simply grows stronger. The earthquake did not break them. The tsunami could not break them. Nuclear disaster cannot break them.
We heard that, time and again, as we spoke to those who had survived the events of last March, people who had seen their homes washed away, and who waited to see their communities rebuilt.
The mighty wheel of Japanese progress is indeed turning slowly. There may be frustration and impatience with its speed, but faith remains that it is moving in the right direction.
The weather in Fukushima was closing in, and the light was fading. We had another 1200 kilometres to cover over five days, and it was time to go.
Just as we were preparing to leave, young Takada san dashed over. He pressed a few small objects into my hand, mumbled a few words and bowed before disappearing again. I looked down.
Takeda san had gifted each of us a small cake, his way of saying thank you. Thank you for being interested, thank you for caring... But more than anything else, thank you for listening to his story.