A Lone Man’s Resolve in Okuma

On the foothill south of Stricken Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant lies a blooming Sunflower field. A lone man, occasionally with helps of volunteers, comes here to tend the garden. The land surrounds the gorgeous field was his former home where he spent years of his life with his parents, his wife and two beautiful daughters. But all that are the thing of past now. The 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami have wiped out his home, and took away lives of his father, a love of his life and one of his precious daughter, then 6. The nuclear disaster has made him and remainder of his family impossible to return to their former homes.

Norio Kimura, the man who created the sunflower garden to commemorate his daughter, began a quest to find his missing family members soon after the disaster at the town of Okuma in Fukushima Prefecture. But the search and rescue effort was hampered by a nuclear disaster 4 km of his home. All personals in the area at the time had to be evacuated due to the high level of radiation. He was able to retrieve his father and his wife’s bodies six months after the disaster, but there was no trace of his missing daughter. Determined, He embarked multiple trips back to Okuma to find his daughter’s remains after resettled in Nagano Prefecture, about 500km from his former home. But the radiation concern means he was only allowed to enter the town once during the first two years since 2011 and 15 times a year with time limit of 5 hours per visit thereafter. The tireless effort did come in fruition on Dec 9. 2016 when he and volunteers found partial remain. But he vows to continue until he finds every single piece of his daughter’s remains.

However, time is slowly running out on his side…

Due to the proximity of Norio Kimura’s home to the stricken nuclear plant, level of contamination has made him and other residents impossible to return. The government began a plan in March 2015 to convert the area into a storage centre for all contaminated soils from near by clean up. Although residents are oppose the plan but the government is determined to buy back the land. Norio Kimura does not particularly oppose the plan which will see his home converted into storage space. But at the moment he refuse to give away the land ownership to the government.

“It’s just doesn’t seem fair that this town has to bear such a burden when it has already lost so much…”

On June 30, 2017, 6 years after the disaster, three former executives from Tokyo Electric Power Company, which operates Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant, was indicted for professional negligence.

All three pleaded not guilty…

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.

Back to Japan

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Cover of Natsuki Yasuda’s new book

There was a self-doubt when I arrived in Japan on the fifth tour into Tohoku region for my ongoing project documenting recovery effort since the triple disaster in 2011. 5 years has passed since the unfortunate event many towns are in the mist of mega construction projects and people are somewhat moving on. But I know there are still many things that can be explored. Problem is that after researching it along for sometime I felt that I’m sort of at the end of it. This is when I decide to seek advice from my fellow photographers and friends Kei and Natsuki.

I was introduced to Kei Sato and Natsuki Yasuda, back in 2013 when I was in the city of Rikuzentakata, a city located about 500km north of Tokyo. It’s a city that has suffered a tremendous damage during the disaster with almost 10% of the population wiped out and 80% of the city destroyed. Among the casualties is Kei’s own mother, who had been living and working at Rikuzentakata at the time. Since then Kei and Natsuki has been visiting Rikuzentakata constantly documenting survivors. During my annual trip to Rikuzentakata they, along with others, have been generously helped me to connect with locals to whom I befriended with.

The meeting, if you’d like to call it, is more like a drinking frenzy…but a productive one nonetheless. One thing that we weren’t able to do when we were in Rikuzentakata is having a discussion about photography in general, and although both has been aware of the work I’ve done since 2012 I’ve never had a chance to show them in a coherent body. There’s also some discussion on few ideas that were in my head for sometime and through the meeting it feels like it may have a chance to turn into a reality. All in all It was a very constructive meeting as well as a happy one…in terms of amount of alcohols we consumed…

So with the night’s over I believe I was able to get myself a bit more organized and will be ready to embrace the journey ahead. It’s still same place I’m heading, but there may be some unexpected stories yet to be discovered around the corner…

By the way, did I mention Kei and Natsuki are couples?

On a side note if you interested in Kei Sato and Natsuki Yasuda’s work in Rikuzentakata both have published books in regard to their work. It’s in Japanese unfortunately but they’re a very compelling work nonetheless.

Kei sato  – https://www.amazon.co.jp/Fragments-魂のかけら-佐藤-慧/dp/4780306930/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1467785353&sr=1-1&keywords=佐藤慧

Natsuki Yasuda – https://www.amazon.co.jp/それでも、海へ-陸前高田に生きる-シリーズ・自然いのちひと-安田-菜津紀/dp/4591148114/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1467785330&sr=1-2&keywords=安田なつき

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…