Minamisoma, Fukushima

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Takayuki Ueno, Founder of the volunteer group Fukkouhamadan, tidying up the sunflower filed at Okuma Town.

How do you rebuild a town that is under the shadow of radiation concern? For a lot of us the answer might be very simple: You don’t. You just leave and settling elsewhere. But that simple solution might not work well in Japan; complicated registration system with deep-rooted attachment to the land makes it very hard for many to have second option when the triple disaster hit Fukushima prefecture in 2011. Added to the problem is that many evacuees are seniors with no transferable skill other than farming. In the end many within 30km radius evacuation zone chose to return as soon as areas are scaled down. As of July 2016, no-go zone has been scaled down to roughly around 5-10km.

I have visited Minamisoma since 2012 periodically as part of my project on the aftermath of triple disaster, and have witnessed the town slowly returned back to normalcy as the government is gradually allowing residents to return. But the town is still struggling economically as concerns of radiation still affects all sectors of economy. Within the town one can sense a fatigue when you brought up events in 2011. Misinformations and government policy has made residents in the region feel that they’ve been neglected, some even felt betrayed.

But even with so much dissatisfaction of current situation one can feel a strong sense of duty to work toward a better tomorrow. Whether is Takayuki Ueno, Founder of volunteer group Fukkouhamadan whose main task is to search for missing bodies as well as setup events to bring a smile on children’s face, or Masami Yoshizawa, owner of the Ranch of Hope which take cares 300+ radiation exposed cattle as living testimony of the danger of nuclear technology, there is strong will among people in the region to be resilient.

Will the town be overcome the shadow of radiation and thrived? No one knows. There is too many uncertainties involved for anyone to make a sensible prediction. For now, all residents can do is trying to make the place as liveable as possible and hope for the best possible outcome.

Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, 5 years on…

 (Pengkuei Ben Huang)

Rikuzenakata, August 2014

In the morning of March 11, 2011 I was getting on my morning routines for work but for some strange urge I turned on the TV, something I don’t usually do. Then I was stunned to learn one of the most powerful earthquake in the century has been hit off coast of northeastern Japan and triggered a tsunami followed by the nuclear crisis second to Chernobyl. As events unfold I found myself in the mist of contacting friends in Japan and making sure they are safe.

Little more than a year later on the summer of 2012 I began my journey to the disaster affected area documenting the lives after the terrible event. Since then I’ve been revisiting towns every year, photographing the progress and lend the helping hand if needed.

I don’t know what compels me to undergo this journey, I don’t think I can even answer that myself. What is certain is that along the way I’ve met some of amazing people I’ve ever encountered. And through their wisdoms I’ve learned or have relearned many things.

As those of us commemorate the 5 years anniversary of the tragic disaster. One has to be reminded that five years onward challenges of rebuilding the region is still there. Perhaps more crucial than ever. Painful experiences learned through the unfortunate event can be served as educational tool to teach the public anywhere from disaster prevention to reconstruction planning.

Pray for Tohoku…

Rikuzen-Takata

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Rikuzentakata, a small, quiet coastal town loacate in Northeastern Japan, was one of several towns devastated by the earthquake and tsunami on Marth 11, 2011. With death toll of roughly 1,800(out of population of 23,000) and 80% of houses flattened, the city was literaly “wiped out of map” as some media described. The high casualty ratio compared to total population of the city, number of families to whom made homeless and  slow recovery progress that came after, one can easily imagine the hardship survivors have to endure and it would be understandable that the town may still be in grief and not ready to open up to the world.

Or so I thought before coming here…

As people say a traumatic event can transform a person, the disastrous event has transformed the city. One of the first thing I sensed when I arrived in Rikuzentakata in time for the Tanabata Festival is the amount of the energy flowing through the street as well as number of young adults and children here. Young people who are either native to this town or have a family connection here decided to migrate back from big cities, some as far away from New York, to contribute what they can to give the city a new life. This added to the fact that many the big infustrcture projects faciliated by the government has begun gives a very different atmosphere here. Although there maybe instances some residences maybe shine away from outsiders, many people here are very acceptive, as opposed to residents at other disaster hit towns who may still in the stage of grievance and does not wish to have any communication from outside world.

Regardless, scars of the disaster still remains. Traveling around the city one can’t help to notice that almost everything here is temporary – houses, shops, municiple office and many more – A vivid reminder of what had happened here on that day. Converstation with locals will quickly make you reliaze the scope of the destruction when you start talking about the disaster. After all, this is the place where everyone knows someone who passed away or have someone in his/her family passed away. But they were abale to overcome the trauma and move ahead with the hope of building a strong communities, while at sametime share their experiences and lessons they learned to anyone who is willing to listen.

While I can not speak for eveyone, I do belive Rikuzentakata will prevail and become the success story among cities that are in the same process of post-disaster recovery.

Finally, I would like to thank everyone whom I encountered in Rikuzentakata from the bottom of my heart. Without their help and acceptance this part of the project would not be realized. Nobuaki Sasaki, Genta Matsumoto, and everyone at SAVE TAKATA and Sakura Line 311 who were able to contribute some of their extreme busy time to help me set up meetings and drove me to locations where I’m having trouble reaching. Mas Iwata who work tireless translating my email exchange between me and SAVE TAKATA. Kei Sato and Natsuki Yasuda, two wonderful photographers who introduce me to fishing community here as well as some of best seafood I ever had. Kazuo Satou, who introduced me to the Yonesaki Temporary Housing Community and helped me bridging the trust between me some of the residents there. Junichi Kikuchi, who was willing to lend me a bicycle as well as grant me an access to document his Tatami shop. Everyone at Kawara-Matsuri-Gumi whose generousity to welcome me into the festival is something I’ll always remember.

And there are many, many more I owe my thanks to…