National | Regional Voices: Fukushima

Pandemic forces Fukushima's Hope Tourism program to go digital

Fukushima Minpo

As with many tourism programs worldwide, COVID-19 is impeding the Hope Tourism project that covers areas affected by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant meltdowns.

Those involved with the project worry about a missed opportunity to raise awareness of the lessons learned and information about reconstruction efforts, especially since the 10th anniversary of the disasters is next year. New ways to carry out tours, such as organizing livestreams, are being discussed.

Leaders of the project believe it is their duty to preserve the memory of the disasters.

“The best way to get people to understand how the area was affected is for them to go there and experience it for themselves,” said Takaaki Kanno, 50, deputy secretary-general of Machizukuri Namie. The organization arranges Hope Tourism tours in the town of Namie, one of the disaster-affected areas in Fukushima Prefecture.

The association provides guidance and tours in disaster-stricken areas to groups of children and university students. However, since February, these tours have been canceled one after another, and the association halted them entirely from March to late May.

The association launched tours in 2018 and guides about 100 to 140 groups a year. It provides a place for dialogue with the townspeople and guides visitors through a local elementary school that was severely damaged by the tsunami triggered by the earthquake and where many abandoned houses are being demolished following the evacuation of residents after the disaster.

Kanno, who is from the nearby town of Kawamata and used to run a cram school in Tokyo, returned to his hometown following the disasters and helped out reconstruction efforts. He became a town employee in November 2012.

But he later discovered that after the tsunami and the nuclear accident, Kawamata’s population had decreased and many of the returning residents were elderly.

“It was like a microcosm of Japan’s future problems,” he said.

Kanno joined Machizukuri Namie in 2018 and worked as a liaison between tour participants and local residents.

The ongoing pandemic, however, has posed a number of challenges.

“I’m worried that the memory of the earthquake and the nuclear accident will fade away if the number of visits to the disaster areas keep decreasing,” Kanno said.

He is now entrusting his hopes to online Hope Tourism initiatives.

The association is contemplating providing videos online to deepen the learning and understanding of disaster-hit areas and share residents’ voices.

The association is also considering collaborating with schools. “We want to make it so that it will touch children’s hearts. If they cannot visit Fukushima now, we would want to create something that will motivate them to come and visit after graduation,” Kanno said.

Looking to the internet to share information about reconstruction efforts is catching on throughout the prefecture amid the pandemic. That’s the mission of Norio Kimura, 54, who evacuated from the town of Okuma to Iwaki in Fukushima Prefecture due to the nuclear disaster. For instance, he transformed a tour planned on May 6 into a Zoom conference.

Kimura livestreamed from the place where his house used to be located in the coastal area of Okuma and talked about the situation at the time of the earthquake and tsunami. About 60 people from both inside and outside the prefecture participated.

“I could feel the spectators’ presence. It motivates me to continue carrying out those missions for all the people who cannot come here,” Kimura said.

This year, the Fukushima University International Exchange Center postponed a short-term study program that invites overseas students to disaster areas. Instead, the students posted photos of the prefecture on social media to share the area’s current status and show off their reconstruction efforts.

William McMichael, deputy director of the exchange center, said that canceling the program was regrettable, but that he will do everything possible to support the region after the pandemic subsides.

Hope Tourism “has great significance for the reconstruction of the disaster-hit areas,” said Toshiya Hashimoto, a tourism professor at Rikkyo University and an expert in disaster prevention education. He has conducted field studies throughout Fukushima Prefecture, including cases in which unsubstantiated rumors hampered reconstruction efforts.

Even if the coronavirus makes it difficult to implement the tours, maintaining a connection with the local community is essential, Hashimoto said.

“Tours allow participants to better understand what the region is going through,” he explained. “For victims, talking about experiences is an important process of ‘psychological reconstruction’ as well.”

Regarding the cancellations and postponement of the tours, Hashimoto said, “To maintain interest in disaster-hit areas, it is important to think about things that can be done — such as online broadcasts — and to encourage spectators to come after the pandemic is over.”

This section features topics and issues covered by the Fukushima Minpo, the prefecture’s largest newspaper. The original article was published May 24.

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