ABIRA, HOKKAIDO – When a magnitude 6.7 earthquake struck Hokkaido early on Sept. 6, flattening some houses and damaging many others, the lives of thousands of residents of the town of Abira were thrown into chaos, and hundreds were forced to seek shelter at evacuation centers.
Although located next to the hardest-hit town of Atsuma, southeast of Chitose, none of Abira’s 8,131 residents died in the disaster, which killed a total of 41 people.
But the quake — which reached the top level of 7 on Japan’s seismic intensity scale and registered an upper 6 in Abira — has sown uncertainty about the futures of many who lived there.
Yasuhiro Watanabe, 56, who has since moved into his brother’s home in Chitose, visited Abira on Tuesday in order to clean up and assess the damage to the two-story house he has shared with his Luxembourg-born wife for 22 years.
The home survived the quake with a number of small cracks in the walls, but he said it would no longer be habitable because it sits at the foot of an unstable mountainside that is believed to face a serious landslide risk if another powerful quake hits.
“If a landslide occurs, it will engulf my entire house,” he said. “I thought I could move back home after the quake, but I may not ever be able to come back here again.”
An evacuation order has been issued for the area where Watanabe’s home stands, and the town is checking the potential for future landslides.
A landslide occurred just 20 meters away from his house, and the nearby Hayakita Junior School has been closed due to severe damage and the added danger posed by the fractured mountainside. It is unclear whether the school will ever reopen.
Watanabe, a Hokkaido native, moved to Abira 22 years ago with his wife and bought the house, which has easy access to Hama-Atsuma Beach east of Tomakomai. He has enjoyed surfing there three times a week.
Watanabe said the quake made him feel he was going through hell.
“I really can’t describe the jolt in words. It felt like I was hit by a car speeding at 40 kph — from the ground as well as from the side,” he explained. “I have experienced … quakes many times during my life in Hokkaido, but this event was incomparably strong.”
Watanabe, who was sleeping in his room on the first floor, rushed upstairs to help his wife, Eveline, whose bedroom was on the second floor. He was in such a hurry that he did not notice he had cut his feet on shattered glass from the bookshelf doors. “I knew my feet felt wet, so at first I thought water was leaking somewhere. But I later realized it was my blood. I guess I was so flustered at the time I didn’t even feel pain.”
When he got to Eveline, he found she was bleeding slightly from her forehead, hit by a falling lamp.
The quake had knocked out the power and disrupted the water supply, so the couple boiled tea and cooked noodles using stockpiled water and a gas stove. They stayed inside for a whole day, using candles at night. But with supplies starting to run out, they moved to Chitose on Friday.
“We could have stayed at an evacuation center in a school near my house, but my wife was getting depressed, so we asked my brother to let us stay at his house instead,” said Watanabe.
The calamity has also cast a shadow over the life of Hiroko Tanaka, an Abira resident who lived alone.
On the day of the quake, she evacuated to Hayakita Elementary School, which served as a shelter, but had to briefly visit a hospital after her blood pressure rose to as high as 177.
“I have never had such high blood pressure before,” Tanaka said. “Now I cannot even take a bath at the school because I’m worried about raising my blood pressure. I’d like to go outside to unwind, but the officials have asked me to stay inside the school.”
What mostly bothers Tanaka is that she cannot sleep well at the evacuation center. “I try hard to sleep, but when I wake up and check the clock, only 20 minutes have passed,” she said.
As of Tuesday, about 20 evacuees were staying at the school. But with the school reopening Wednesday, they had to move to another evacuation center.
“I lost my husband more than two decades ago and my son is living in Tokyo, so I don’t have anyone to rely on here,” Tanaka said.
Electric power was restored in Abira on Saturday, but it would take at least a week to restore water supply, according to the town.
Volunteers have joined efforts to rebuild the residents’ lives. A volunteer center opened Monday, with around 450 people registered by midday Tuesday. Those wishing to help can apply at the website and will be asked to do jobs relevant to their skills and qualifications.
Watanabe believes he is among the lucky ones — in Atsuma, 36 people died in massive landslides. “My wife and I are alive, at least. That’s what matters the most.”
In an interview, he kept a smile on his face and showed a Hawaiian shaka sign. But there was a moment when he could not hold back his tears, saying he was at the low point of his life.
“My mother died in August, and I’m still trying to recover from that loss,” he lamented. “Now I might lose my house.”
His wife, who has been increasingly feeling unwell since the quake, will soon fly back to Luxembourg because she no longer feels safe in Hokkaido. Watanabe believes it is difficult to continue living in Abira but plans to stay in Hokkaido for the time being.
“My wife wants me to come with her, but I cannot just abandon everything here,” said Watanabe.
Then he smiled: “Well, I’m at the bottom, but it can only go up from here.”