Sharing Paper Walls After an Iron Wave

By Natalie Yemenidjian

Editor’s Note: Yemenidjian combined what she learned in Fukushima into a larger reflection on the needs of people in the aftermath of disaster. This story combines analysis of how government officials reacted with interviews of the people who lived through it.

In Japanese folklore, earthquakes and tsunamis are written into legend.

From a community center at the Sasaya Higashi Temporary Housing District in Fukushima, former Namie town resident Nabou Kano, 58, pleaded: “We all knew that tsunamis come every 200 years, why did it have to happen during my lifetime?”

Kanno posing

Nabou Kano, 58, stands outside the community center at Sasaya Temporary Housing. Photo by Gavin Mcintyre

Kano said he felt the earthquake for what felt like one minute. He was too busy trying to stay on his feet to feel any kind of fear, “all I could do was hold on to whatever I could find.”

The town of Namie is located in the Futaba District of Japan’s Fukushima prefecture. Namie is considered an exclusion zone after the earthquake. The town may reopen in April 2017, but according to a survey, only 17.5 percent of residents said they would return.

The town, that looks like it was set on pause right after the earth shook, had some of the highest concentrated levels of radiation after the nuclear failure because of its proximity to the power plant.

Gavin McIntyre salon

An empty store sits in Namie, Japan. The store has been left empty after the owner evacuated during the disaster. Photo by Gavin Mcintyre

Ozaki Takako, 68, was a resident of Namie, Fukushima. Takako’s home was damaged, but is still standing. She had lived there all her life until the earthquake.

She said that she still had electricity right after the quake and watched the disaster unfold on her television set “when the earthquake happened, in my mind all I thought was that we have to escape and run away from here. Fortunately, I had electricity and we saw the news — an iron wave came to the coast. The next day, March 12 at 6 a.m., we heard sirens. The voice was saying nigete kudasai, run away, please.”

Takako sees a doctor about her mental health regularly and says that no one in her community wants to talk about these things.

“I felt lonely,” Takako says. “When I saw the letters for Fukushima or Namie, I cried. When Namie town officers asked us to have a check up, I went to the hospital. The doctor said I had a very hard time. I couldn’t stop crying.”

Takako has post traumatic stress disorder. Her view on how society deals with mental health is not far off from the way medical staff feel about it as well.

In an interview in a community center in Fukushima, Director of Internal Medicine at Soma Central Hospital Dr. Sae Ochi said that mental health “is the responsibility of every Japanese person.”

To put this in context, at the beginning of 2014, the amount of people who died in Fukushima because of indirect causes from the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power plant failure outnumbered direct deaths. Indirect deaths are attributed to suicides, alcohol abuse, a decline of health due to lack of exercise in evacuation centers and other factors.

The mortality rates in temporary housing districts is up to four times more than the rest of Japan, according to Ochi. The higher mortality rate is attributed to the older population of those in temporary housing. Radiation fears include a fear of eating fruits, vegetables and fresh meat or fish. Those fears have also lead to a lower quality of health.

In the Sasaya development, community leaders make their rounds, knocking on every door to make sure everyone is still alive – a sobering and realistic solution to what Sasaya residents call “invisible deaths,” when the elderly die unnoticed.

neighborhood housing

Some of the temporary housing units in the Sasaya Higashi Temporary Housing District. Photo by Lorisa Salvatin

The overwhelming feeling among residents at the East Sasaya is that they will be forgotten.

Architects of Sasaya temporary housing development knew that they had to somehow recreate the incredibly strong communities of towns like Namie, Iitate and Sendai; after all, most of these families had lived there for tens of generations.

Most residents at Sasaya had been farmers, avid gardeners or fishermen and women living in lush mountainsides or coastal regions of Fukushima, Japan. But now, they live in 7-foot by 7-foot apartments with shared, thin walls on a city block of concrete. Neighbors can hear each other’s arguments and most intimate moments.

A village elder said “we can hear couples having sex. So, they go to hotels, or other places to be romantic.”

He said that this has lead to domestic disputes at Sasaya. Children are looked after – and disciplined — by a collective of grandparents, aunts and uncles.

Families and villages have been torn between housing districts. More than 148,000 people had to evacuate their homes, out of which more than 95,000 evacuated to other parts of Fukushima. Only 3 percent of all temporary housing is built in farming villages.

For Sasaya resident Nabou Kano, 58, the lack of chores, unemployment and poor eating habits lead to heart disease.

Jobs and housing are “the key elements of disaster recovery. Individuals and communities struck by an earthquake, hurricane, or other calamity cannot ‘return to normal’ unless people have means of supporting themselves and places to live,” according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Kano, who had to abandon his home and his salon in Namie, said that living in the development for the last three years was like being a “pig who gets so much food but no exercise.” Kano lifted his shirt as he says this, revealing scars from heart surgery he just had. “This would not have happened at home,” he says.