The NHK travel program “Tsurube no Kazoku ni Kampai” (“Tsurube Toasts Families”) recently aired a two-parter about the town of Watari in Miyagi Prefecture, which was devastated in the March 11, 2011, tsunami. In the series, rakugo storyteller Shofukutei Tsurube and a celebrity guest visit small towns unannounced and try to get to know some residents. The encounters are casual and highlight the special qualities of the area, but the basic aim is to show the close bonds that define a community.
These bonds — kizuna in Japanese—were aggressively promoted by the media in the aftermath of the 2011 tragedy as a means of helping the victims endure their misfortune, the idea being that solidarity would see them through. But while Tsurube and his guest, actress Shinobu Otake, met people who seemed to be doing fairly well four years after the disaster, there wasn’t as strong a sense of community as you usually see on the show. The landscape of Watari still shows the effects of the tsunami, and the people, while resilient, can’t really get through a day without being reminded of what they lost — specifically loved ones and property, but more generally, as one person put it, a “settled life.”
This unease is most persistent in areas that were evacuated due to radioactive contamination caused by the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. Some of the people affected have been allowed to go back to their homes, or what’s left of them. However, a larger number remain in limbo not just due to radiation concerns, but because their neighborhoods have yet to be rebuilt. They don’t know when they can return, and are becoming less confident that they ever will.
Uncertainty remains the unmistakable tone of related news coverage, and even when the theme of the “story” is meant to be optimistic, there’s always the reality that everything has changed, that nothing can be reclaimed. Another NHK documentary aired at the end of February focused on one temporary housing complex where the residents have made a concerted effort to keep their spirits up through the kind of activities that unite households into a community, but the very fact that they had to make an effort showed how the process wasn’t a natural one.
The most disheartening statistic in this regard, and one that has received a great deal of attention, has been the number of suicides among evacuees. An NHK program originally broadcast last October in the Tohoku area and shown in the Tokyo Metropolitan region on March 1 pointed out that the incidence of suicide has increased markedly since 2012. During the first nine months of 2014, there were already 11 evacuees who were believed to have killed themselves, which may not sound like a lot considering that hundreds of thousands of people were dispossessed, but a psychiatrist interviewed on the program projected that the number is bound to increase since the usual problems that accompany modern life are magnified when “there is a lack of stability.” That’s why it’s so important for the authorities to make some sort of definite announcement as to when reconstruction will happen. The psychiatrist insists that even if the government said “you will never be able to return to your homes,” things would be better for the evacuees because at least then they would have a more definite idea of what they should do. However, the authorities want to avoid being pinned down on anything.
The program presented several suicide cases directly related to the loss of stability. In one, a middle-aged man who lived on a large farm within the restricted zone had hoped to someday move back, since before the accident he had been working to remodel the house and land. However, every time he was allowed to visit his property for limited periods of time, he despaired at how much the house had deteriorated and the garden had become overgrown. The authorities did not tell him he would never be able to return, even though that area has been designated as the most radioactive, but with each visit he seemed to accept the fact that his old life was gone for good. One day he just went there and stabbed himself to death.
Another case was of a retired man who lived 8 km from the stricken reactors. He and his family were evacuated to Koriyama, first to a public facility and then to a rental apartment. Obsessed with the disaster, he did nothing but watch TV in a kind of stupor. His neighbors were now scattered to the four winds, and as he realized those friendships were permanently altered, he saw no reason to continue to believe they could resume. It was this uncertainty that drove him to jump from a bridge with a view of the ocean he once loved so dearly.
The majority of evacuees have accepted this loss of a settled life, but in many cases they’ve decided that the best thing to do is leave and start over elsewhere. As the psychiatrist pointed out, this option is more realistic for young people, who can imagine a future different than the one they had been expecting. The older you are, the more difficult it is to face up to that kind of change. And since the media is constantly reminding the evacuees that the rest of Japan moved on a long time ago, they are acutely aware of their impermanent circumstances whenever they turn on the TV or open a newspaper: The government is going to restart nuclear reactors, construction resources are being monopolized by preparations for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, etc. They feel alienated and perhaps betrayed by others’ normalcy.
Coverage of the affected region will always have a darker cast, even when the particular news item is designed to be hopeful. And while the authorities deserve to be scrutinized for not being as forthright as they should in their promises to address victims’ material concerns, it’s almost impossible to re-create a community once it’s been torn apart. Buildings and infrastructure are easy. Kizuna is hard.
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